ST. LOUIS – Until this week, Rep. Todd Akin was virtually unknown beyond his suburban district, associated more with his deep religious convictions than any legislative achievements.

Long before his comments about women’s bodies and “legitimate rape” made him a potential flashpoint in the fall campaign, Akin was a favorite among home-schooling organizations and conservative church groups in the area where his relatives have lived for generations.

He seldom authored bills or sought wider recognition.

Now Akin could help shape the national political debate in a Senate race that leaders of his own party figure he can’t win, and they’re worried he’ll drag down other Republicans with him. But if Akin’s 12 years in Congress have proven anything, it’s that pressure from the party establishment carries little weight with him.

“He’s never been popular among Republicans, and Todd Akin doesn’t care,” Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren said.

“The best you can say for Todd is that he’s a very principled guy. He believes what he believes, and he’s not going to compromise those principles just to be in the mainstream.”

The 65-year-old, six-term congressman ascended in Missouri politics largely on his own. He grew up on a farm outside St. Louis, earned an engineering degree and went to work at now-bankrupt Laclede Steel Co., which his great-grandfather started. He and his wife, Lulli, settled on land in St. Louis County owned by Akin’s father. Each Independence Day he would dress in colonial attire as the family hosted a party for the neighborhood.

The Akins home-schooled their four sons (three of whom graduated from the Naval Academy and became Marine Corps officers) and two daughters.

Lulli Akin’s involvement in home-schooling groups helped create the base of support that has long sustained her husband’s political career.

Akin, a member of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, earned a master’s of divinity degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis in 1984. He never became a pastor but four years later won a seat in the Missouri House, where he established a track record as a staunch abortion opponent and supporter of gun rights.

Faith is never far from his mind. In a fundraising email sent to supporters Wednesday, Akin said he was accountable only to God and the voters, not “party bosses.”

His anti-establishment streak started with his first run for Congress.

In 2000, party elders favored Gene McNary, a former St. Louis County executive who served in the George H.W. Bush administration and ran previously for governor and senator.

Despite being an underdog, Akin defeated McNary by 56 votes on a day when drenching rain kept turnout at 17 percent.

Akin’s disregard for the advice of party elites can be seen throughout his congressional tenure.

While debating Bush’s Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003, House leaders assiduously courted rank-and-file members to vote for the legislation. Akin refused, saying the program would blow up the federal budget and attract more illegal immigrants.

He also voted against Bush’s No Child Left Behind education package.