Although many on the Internet mocked his comment during Tuesday's debate about "binders of women," GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney used the occasion to offer several comments designed to show his campaign is friendly to the voters who might decide the toss-up election: women.
It followed a strong performance by Romney two weeks ago during the first match-up when the Republican nominee ate into the wide lead Obama held with women voters by appealing on pocket-book issues. But that debate was primarily focused on tax and spending issues rather than social ones, which was his point of attack in the second debate.
Some snap polls taken immediately following the debate showed that undecided women voters were more attracted to President Barack Obama than Romney. One survey, by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, showed women declaring Obama the debate winner over Romney by a 56 percent to 43 percent margin. Obama held a narrower, 49 percent to 43 percent margin with men.
Romney worked to moderate at least the language surrounding his stance on access to contraception. Earlier this year, he said he supported legislation that would have allowed employers who provide healthcare to opt-out of federal mandated points of coverage – such as contraception – if they had moral objections. That means women seeking that coverage would have to pay for it out of pocket. It's a charge Obama leveled at Romney on Tuesday night, but one Romney attempted to refute.
"I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not," Romney said. "And I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives."
When asked how his two positions squared with each other, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Romney has never supported legislation that dictates to women whether they should or should not use contraception.
"The disagreement between the governor and President Obama on this issue is over whether the federal government should impose a nationwide insurance mandate for contraception," she said in an e-mail. "The President wants bureaucrats to make that decision for all Americans, even where it violates their religious liberty. Gov. Romney does not."
The Romney campaign has also launched a television commercial that highlights him as a moderate on abortion, pointing out he supports the right to abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is threatened.
Majorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that promotes pro-life politicians and principles, says Romney hit just the right notes when it came to women voters.
"Given all the cash that Planned Parenthood and the president have put into making this 'war on women' theme, it's really not sticking down to the level that they assumed that it would and the way they hoped that it would because the gender gap collapsed overnight after that last debate," she says. "It also means he's not as out of step as the president likes to make him look."
But Jess McIntosh, spokeswoman for Emily's List, a group that promotes pro-choice, Democratic women for political office, says the opposite is true.
"Women's issues – social, economic, health-related – these are straight-up losers for Republicans when they get talked about undecided voters move in the Democrats' direction," she says. And Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg questioned whether the moderate Mitt Romney would sell with voters.
"He sort of dissembled and obfuscated because he's trying to appear moderate on these issues," she says. "There's never been any pressure on a Republican presidential candidate in my memory to appear moderate. The pressure has always been on the Democrat not to appear too extreme."
Greenberg said Republicans have overreached at both the state and federal level since the 2010 Republican wave election, leaving voters leery of further attempts to place restricts on women's health.
"Don't underestimate the importance of motivating the base. Women's health, Planned Parenthood, resonates very strongly with younger and blue collar women," she says. "Sixty percent of women support requiring insurance plans to cover contraception."
Romney also clumsily answered a question about whether or not he supported a law signed by Obama making it easier for women to sue in cases of pay discrimination by talking about his support for flexible working hours for women employees.
"I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible," he said, referring to his term as governor. He said his chief of staff was a woman and said she couldn't work late at night.
"'I need to be able to get home at 5 o'clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school,'" he recounted her as saying. "So we said fine."
Greenberg says her polling shows women far prefer higher wages to flexible hours and Romney's framing of the issue reflects an outdated image of the mindset of many working women. A new Gallup survey of swing state female voters names abortion as their top issue, with men more likely to say jobs. It will likely take a few days to see if the debate made any impact on the neck-and-neck polling that has been the hallmark of the campaign up to this point.
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