It's Ladies (Debate) Night

Obama, Romney making a play for women in the middle.

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People cheer as they watch the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney during a watch party sponsored by the South Orange Courty Tea Party in Dana Point, Calif.

Ladies, ladies, ladies.

That's likely to be the focus of both President Barack Obama and Republican opponent Mitt Romney during the Tuesday debate and beyond, as the presidential campaign heads into the final three weeks.

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It's among women voters where Romney was able to make up ground after his strong initial debate performance in Denver two weeks ago, and it's where Obama will have to increase his support if he hopes to stay in the White House.

"[Romney] came across as strong and people who may have been undecided, or people who didn't find him at all likeable, may have found him somewhat more likeable," says Jennifer Lawless, director of American University's Women and Politics Institute, of the Denver debate. "Romney had the most room to improve among women, so I don't think that's surprising that's where we saw movement."

Romney was able to appeal to women on pocketbook issues, but Lawless says the president can highlight social issues, such as abortion, access to contraception, and pay equity, to help woo back moderate women. None of those topics were discussed in the first face-off.

[READ: Why Romney's Recent Polling Burst May Not Be Enough to Win]

"Part of the reason Romney did well among women was because women's issues were not mentioned, and those are the kinds of things that turn people off to Romney and Paul Ryan, especially undecided female voters in swing states," she says. "So if you watch an-hour-and-a-half long debate and you are not primed or cued to think about any of those issues, where Romney is not seen as somebody who understands people like you, it's not that surprising that you are going to evaluate him higher."

But the war for women will be waged beyond the debate stage.

MoveOn.org, a liberal group, has launched an advertising campaign with actresses Scarlett Johansson, Eva Longoria, and Kerry Washington telling voters that Romney supports ending funding to Planned Parenthood, which provides cancer screenings as well as access to abortions, opposes Roe v. Wade, and ties his agenda to Republican proposals that require ultrasounds before abortions and redefining "rape."

"If you think that this election won't affect you and your life, think again," Johansson says.

Lawless says the advertisement probably won't change any minds, but it could help mobilize pro-Obama voters.

[READ: Colorado: Wild West, Wild Voters]

The Romney campaign is also doing its share of courting female voters. Romney and his wife, Ann, were scheduled to appear on ABC's The View, a daily show watched by millions of women, but the candidate canceled at the last minute. (Perhaps concerned the largely-liberal panel would skewer him in front of the key demographic, a possibility Romney highlighted in the secretly-taped fundraising remarks he made earlier this year.) Ann Romney will still appear on the show.

"The downside to canceling is it looks like he's afraid or unwilling to be surrounded by people who might push him on issues, the upside to canceling is he knows very well that he doesn't have a message that's going to resonate with that audience," says Lawless. "Ann Romney can't be pushed the same way he would be, so it's a way for them in a pretty positive environment to get out their own talking points and insulate them against attacks that might be difficult to reconcile with other things he's said."

The neck-and-neck race continues to be fluid, but the campaign that can close the deal with more women, who make up more than half of the voting electorate, will hold the edge.

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  • Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at rmetzler@usnews.com.