WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sports a pink breast cancer awareness bracelet on his wrist as he campaigns across battleground states. He slams rival Mitt Romney as a throwback with 1950s views of women. And he’s airing an edgy new ad enticing women casting their first ballot to pick the right man, him.
The consistent emphasis on women comes as several polls have found Obama’s once commanding lead among women voters narrowing.
In the past few weeks, Obama’s lead dropped sharply in several surveys:
--from 18 percentage points to zero in a poll by the Associated Press.
--from 18 points to 6 in Pew Research Center polls.
--from 14 points to 4 in polls by Monmouth University;
--from 11 points to 6 in the Politico/George Washington University
The drop was not universal. He had a 15-point lead among women in a new ABC News/Washington Post daily tracking poll. He led by 8 points in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll and in a Gallup poll.
Obama’s campaign brushes off polls showing Obama and Romney tied among women. Campaign manager Jim Messina insisted Monday that Obama is “leading among women by double digits nationally and in every battleground state.”
Still, the campaign is fighting to shore up support among the critically important voting bloc.
Introducing Obama in New Hampshire on Saturday, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen characterized Romney as someone “women can’t trust,” mocking his debate line that he was given “binders full of women” when he sought to diversify his administration.
“We’ll keep our rights, we’ll keep our health care and we’ll keep our president,” Shaheen said.
Obama followed her by charging that a Romney administration would “turn back the clock 50 years for women.”
An edgy pro-Obama ad by Lena Dunham, star of the HBO show “Girls,” suggestively links voting for the first time to losing virginity. “The first time shouldn’t be with just anybody,” she says into the camera. “You want to do it with a great guy.”
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who helped conduct the Politico/George Washington University Battleground Poll, told Politico that “women are holding back because of the economy.”
Women may be “focusing more strongly on the economy than on women’s issues,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. But she added that Obama also wounded himself – among women as well as men – with his lackluster performance at the first debate.
Analysts also blame a contraction in Obama support to Romney’s success at the first debate in casting off the portrayal of him as an unlikely leader.
“I think a lot of these polls were reflecting some real movement there, that Romney was in a pretty deep deficit, and he came out, overcame negative expectations and presented himself as more moderate than in the primaries,” said Michael Dimock, associate director for research of the Pew Research Center.
Yet Dimock says he expects Obama to finish with the same gender gap – more support among women than among men -- as his Democratic presidential predecessors.
“I don’t see anything in the polling that suggests it will be substantially larger or smaller than what we’ve seen historically,” Dimock said. “I don’t see that there’s anything unique to the gender gap this year.”
Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, a nonpartisan research organization in New Jersey, agreed, adding that she’s seen no consistent polling to suggest that Obama is losing his edge among women.
“I think there was erosion in women’s support following the first debate and movement toward Romney, but I think it happened for men as well,” Carroll said. “But at this point there’s no evidence that it’s continuing, that Romney is continuing to pick up women voters.”
She said Obama’s focus on women stems from the fact that there are slightly disproportionately more women among voters who have yet to make up their minds, and women make up a critical part of Obama’s base.
“This campaign is going to come down to turnout,” she said. “You would expect him to be out there speaking to women and mobilizing his base.”
Still, there are voters like Carrie Williams, 33, a Virginia resident who works in marketing and advertising, and should be in Obama’s camp. Although she didn’t vote in 2008, she comes from a Democratic family and had rooted for Obama to succeed.
The debates, however, made up her mind. She’ll be voting for Romney. Of Obama, she says, “I just don’t think he’s giving us any indication that he has a plan for the future.”
But Lily Bryan, 24, a Virginia resident who voted for Obama in 2008, will do so again. She acknowledges some in her circle “have become a little disenchanted,” but will still support Obama.
“It’s mostly a lot of social issues,” she said, listing abortion rights, equal pay for women and gay marriage as issues where she agrees with Obama.
Any softening of female support comes as Obama faces a significant gap with males, especially white men.
Tom Edmonds, a Republican political consultant in Virginia, says Obama’s approach to women voters – including an emphasis on access to birth control and abortion rights -- may be misplaced during an economic downturn and is doing little to bring aboard male voters.
“Obama is trying to appeal to women on one single point and they want a job, economic opportunities,” Edmonds said. “They want the same things men want. Obama’s trying to appeal to women through the abortion issue almost exclusively while Romney is trying to appeal to them on jobs and the economy. As Romney’s stock has gone up with men, it’s also gone up with women."
Obama’s approach has its fans: as the president walked into The Common Man restaurant in Merrimack, N.H., on Saturday after a campaign appearance in nearby Nashua, a woman sitting with her husband and two children grabbed Obama’s arm.
“I’m so happy with your support of women,” she told the president.
Obama replied: "Women are always – usually -- ahead of the game.”