WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are engaged in a furious duel for women’s votes, battling daily with attack ads, massive rallies and heartfelt testimonials from supportive women.
In the latest round Friday, the president fired up a raucous crowd at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., with a vigorous pitch to women voters. He wore a pink bracelet, signaling his support for breast cancer research, and was introduced by Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Obama poured it on. "When it comes to issues critical to women, the right to make your own decision about your health, the right to be treated fairly and equally in the workplace, Gov. Romney wants to take us to policies more suited to the 1950s," Obama said, as the audience kept interrupting him with applause.
"He may not have noticed, we’re in the 21st century, and in the 21st century, a woman deserves equal pay for equal work,” he said. “This should be a no-brainer."
Obama went on to talk about administration efforts to make contraception and mammograms easier to obtain. The Romney campaign quickly responded by trying to shift the focus back to the economy.
“Women haven’t forgotten how we’ve suffered over the last four years in the Obama economy with higher taxes, higher unemployment and record levels of poverty," said Virginia state lawmaker Barbara Comstock.
Romney’s also trying to show a gentler, softer side, notably in a new ad this week. It features a woman suggesting Romney’s position on abortion is not as extreme as opponents say it is.
"I looked into it," the woman says. "Turns out Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all. In fact, he does think abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life."
She then pivots to the economic argument. "This issue’s important to me," the woman says of abortion, "but I’m more concerned about the debt our children will be left with. I voted for President Obama last time. We just can’t afford four more years."
The Obama campaign struck back quickly with an ad featuring the woman’s picture. "Seen this from Mitt Romney?" it asked. "Then take a look at this."
“If Roe v. Wade was overturned, Congress passed a federal ban on all abortions, and it came to your desk – would you sign it? Yes or no?” asks CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a 2007 Republican candidate debate.
“Let me say it: I’d be delighted to sign that bill,” Romney says as he smiles and vigorously shakes his head affirmatively. The ad edits out the next lines that Romney said at the time. “But that’s not where we are,” he added. “That’s not where America is today. Where America is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade and return to the states that authority. But if the Congress got there, we had that kind of consensus in that country, terrific."
Romney sees a historic chance to close the "gender gap" that’s dogged Republican presidential candidates for decades. Polls suggest Romney has an opening, and he’s trying to cast himself as a reasonable, moderate leader able to fix a sluggish economy that’s hit women particularly hard.
Democrats counter by reminding women that Obama has aggressively championed abortion rights, domestic violence laws and equal pay, while Romney and his allies have been reluctant to embrace those causes .
Democrats still have the edge. "The economy is the more compelling issue in this election, but the difference is that Romney only has the economy. Obama has the economic argument, but he has the other issues on top of that," said Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, a nonpartisan research organization in New Jersey.
To win the White House, Democrats need to maintain their recent edge with women, particularly in an election that promises to be close. In every White House race since 1980, the Democratic candidate has done significantly better with women than men.
Romney got some fresh hope from an Oct. 4-7 Pew Research Center poll showing him tied with Obama among women. In September, Romney was down 18 percentage points.
Michael Dimock, the center’s associate director, said the change could have been fueled by Romney not coming off in the first debate as the monster Obama had portrayed.
"The expectation was that people would see this aristocratic, out-of-touch ogre on the stage," Dimock said.
Evidence remains strong, though, that Romney still has an enormous task. "Do I think there was some movement after the first debate? Absolutely,” Carroll said. “But I don’t believe it completely reversed it (the gap)."
The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion has polled voters this month in five swing states, and director Lee Miringoff saw the gender gap persisting.
Nor have the debates appeared to change many minds, he said. "Voters aren’t shopping around right now," he said.
The Obama-Romney choice for women depends on which issues they view as more crucial. A Politico-Battleground poll Oct. 7-11 asked which issues were most important. The economy and unemployment were overwhelmingly the top choices.
Gallup, though, reported this month that 39 percent of women considered the economy the most important issue for women in this election, while 15 percent cited equal rights and pay. Those issues, said Gallup’s Andrew Dugan in a poll analysis, "play to Obama’s strengths."
The size of the gender gap, he said, "may rest in part on the Obama campaign’s ability to emphasize these issues as especially critical to the female electorate."
Romney, on the other hand, "must continue to focus on his strengths on more general national issues," such as the federal debt and the economy, "and continue to highlight their importance to women."