Steven Senne, Associated Press
Rhode Island Republican Congressional candidate Brendan Doherty faces reporters during a news conference at a boxing gym, in Central Falls, R.I., Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012. Doherty, former head of the Rhode Island State Police, is making his first run for political office.

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — Republican congressional candidate Brendan Doherty on Thursday hit back against accusations that he isn't a strong supporter of women by attacking incumbent Democratic Rep. David Cicilline for his past as a defense attorney who represented criminals accused of hurting women.

Doherty, former head of the state police, held a news conference at a boxing gym to declare that "the gloves are off" in his race against Cicilline, who was a criminal defense lawyer before going into politics full time in 2002.

"I put bad people in jail. He tries to keep 'em out. That's the difference between me and David Cicilline," he said.

Doherty's comments came a day after the Democratic Party criticized the first-time GOP candidate for opposing the expansion of the federal Violence Against Women Act. Also Wednesday, a group backed by Planned Parenthood held a rally outside a "Women for Doherty" event to call attention to Doherty's opposition to provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which rally organizer Paula Hodges said was an important issue for women's health.

At the news conference, Doherty said Cicilline was unqualified to criticize him on the issue of violence against women because Cicilline defended men in the 1980s and 1990s who were convicted of hurting or killing women.

"Criminal defense lawyers who represent the very worst of society shouldn't point the finger at me," Doherty said. "I have been strong on women's issues my whole career."

Doherty is anti-abortion, though he supports allowing women to have abortions in the case of rape or incest or if her health is at risk. He said that he doesn't believe the federal government should pay for abortions but that he still supports federal money for organizations such as Planned Parenthood for services including cancer screening and birth control.

Cicilline Campaign Manager Eric Hyers said no one was questioning Doherty's past commitment to women. What's important is what he would do if elected, Hyers said.

"I'm talking about what he would do in Congress. That is what matters to Rhode Island," he said, adding that every female Republican senator voted for the expansion in a vote of 68-31.

House Republicans opposed the expansion, which made additional provisions protecting Native Americans and immigrants.

"He has chosen to side with Republican House leadership," Hyers said.