Thanks to controversial--and widely panned--comments from a Democratic strategist on cable news on Wednesday night, the sniping between Republicans and Democrats on which party is better for women has hit a fever pitch. It's a battle that has both President Obama's campaign team and GOP front-runner Mitt Romney fanning the flames and seeking the advantage.
Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist with ties to, if not an official role with, top Democratic politicians, created a firestorm on Twitter and the cable networks when she said on CNN that Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life."
Romney, the wife of Mitt Romney, was a stay-at-home mom who raised the couple's five boys. She has been very active with charity organizations, survived cancer, and has multiple sclerosis.
Rosen later said she did not mean to imply that being a mom was not hard work. But she hasn't backed away from the sentiment behind her comments.
"She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of women in this country are facing," Rosen said of Ann Romney on the same CNN broadcast.
Immediately, Republicans sought to tie Rosen with Obama's re-election campaign, though top Obama advisers immediately took to social media to distance themselves from the comments.
"I could not disagree with Hilary Rosen any more strongly. Her comments were wrong and family should be off limits. She should apologize," said Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager via Twitter soon after the incident.
Women have become one of the most sought-after voting blocs in the 2012 presidential election, with recent polling showing that Obama leads Romney by about 20 points with the group. In recent days, the Romney camp has worked to paint Obama as a failure with women because of his economic policies, citing statistics that show women have suffered disproportionate job losses during his administration.
"If you look at where we are, women have faced massive job losses under this administration and the policies of this president have failed women voters and men, too," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican and Romney supporter, during a conference call with reporters on Thursday.
Ayotte, calling Rosen an adviser to the president, said as a mother herself she was insulted by the Democrat's comments. But she also pressed the economic case against the president.
"The policies of this administration have failed women in our society and men in terms of where our economy is right now, how much they are paying for gas at the pumps and also the massive debt that has been incurred under this president and that's going to be passed on to the next generation," she said.
Just how much of a lasting impact this latest dust-up will have on the overall presidential race isn't clear.
But Jennifer Lawless, government professor and director of American University's Women and Politics Institute, says it will likely be quickly forgotten unless it becomes a part of a larger narrative.
"It would be far more damning if it was a female candidate running against Mitt Romney and she said that," Lawless says. "But when you are talking about a surrogate or a potential surrogate of the campaign and it's unclear who authorized who to say what, I think it's a pretty inside-the-beltway discussion."
Romney and the Republicans will also have to offer independent women voters more than just insults against Obama and his policies in order to win them over, she adds.
"It's not going to be enough to try and throw mud," Lawless says. "There's been a gender gap in every presidential election since 1980, so independent women's baseline preference is going to be more likely to lean toward Obama than Romney. So Romney has to do more than just get women to re-think Obama, he needs to get them to re-think Obama and then come to him, and that's not an obvious case to make for independent women."
Dispatching women surrogates to speak on his behalf is helpful, she says, but won't completely get the job done.
"Focusing on the economy is helpful. If he can demonstrate that his jobs plan and his economic plan will ultimately help women, families, and children, that's potentially ripe territory," Lawless says.
However, although Romney's campaign has been effective at tying Obama to the poor shape of the economy and outlined the negative impact this has had on women, it has failed to outline how a Romney administration would be different.
In fact, Romney and the Republicans have embraced a budget plan that calls for deep cuts to programs like food stamps and Medicaid, which disproportionately impact women and families.
"Romney has to have an answer to that and has to explain how women's economic status is not going to take a hit under his administration," Lawless says. "And it's difficult when trying to shore up the base and trying to get the Republican establishment behind him--he's got to embrace some things that are not necessarily to women's advantage."
Amanda Henneberg, a Romney spokeswoman, says the former Massachusetts governor "has laid out a comprehensive, pro-growth economic agenda that will undo the damage of the Obama presidency and restore America's promise."
She cites policy proposals that will lower taxes, reduce regulation, and ensure "reliable and affordable energy."
- Read: Obama, Romney try to woo women through their wallets
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