Republican front-runner Mitt Romney is starting to hone his appeal to female voters, acutely aware as he turns to the general election that he has little choice but to narrow US President Barack Obama’s commanding lead among this critical constituency.
None too soon, say many Republican activists. They expect Romney, as well as his popular wife, Ann, to make an explicit pitch to female voters on the economy and jobs, their top issues.
The eventual nominee “needs to start recognizing the power that women voters have,” said Rae Lynne Chornenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor on pace to clinch the nomination in June, if not earlier, acknowledges that the Republican Party faces a historical challenge in closing the advantage Democrats have with women.
Romney has won far more delegates to the Republican nominating convention than his challengers: former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, US Representative Ron Paul and former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich.
Like Obama, Romney sees pocketbook issues as the key to winning them.
“We have work to do to make sure we take our message to the women of America, so they understand how we’re going to get good jobs and we’re going to have a bright economic future for them and for their kids,” Romney said last week in Middleton, Wisconsin.
By Friday, Obama was making the same argument at the White House, where he hosted a conference on women and the economy. He presented a full review of the administration’s achievements on equal pay and workplace flexibility as new unemployment numbers showed an uptick in job creation.
“When we talk about these issues that primarily impact women, we’ve got to realize they are not just women’s issues. They are family issues, they are economic issues, they are growth issues, they are issues about American competitiveness,” Obama said, using his office to cast himself as a defender of women.
His Democratic allies are putting it more bluntly, saying that Republicans are waging a “war against women.”
Almost daily, US political discourse features some echo of this battle for women’s votes, whether from members of the House and Senate, the Democratic and Republican national committees or the presidential candidates.
Earlier this spring, the president called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke to reassure her after radio host Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut.”
Fluke had testified to congressional Democrats in support of their national healthcare policy that would compel her school to offer health plans that cover birth control. Republicans widely called Limbaugh’s comments inappropriate.
On Thursday, Obama called for women to be accepted as members to the all-male Augusta National, home of the Masters golf tournament. Romney quickly followed his lead.
However, the Republican’s challenge is stark.
Romney must overcome history, political math and the missteps of a party that picked a fight over one provision of Obama’s healthcare law and ended up on the defensive over access to birth control. Romney also has work to do with female voters after inconsistencies or misstatements on issues such as abortion and the future of Planned Parenthood.
Republicans have faced a “gender gap” since 1980, with women generally favoring Democratic candidates. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that gap lifts Obama to a lead across a dozen crucial states.