President Obama went on the record Thursday supporting the admission of women as members in the all-male Augusta National Golf Club.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters of Obama's preference as the prestigious Masters golf tournament, hosted by Augusta, was getting underway in Georgia.
"He believes Augusta should admit women," Carney said. "....Kind of long past the time when women should be excluded from anything."
Obama told Carney that it's "up to the club to decide," but, as a personal opinion, Obama thinks women should be welcome.
Obama's comments come at time when both the Democrats and Republicans are intensifying their campaigns to win over women voters. The remarks were part of Obama's effort to show that he is an advocate of women in a variety of ways.
Obama and other administration officials are scheduled to address a White House forum on women and the economy on Friday, and they are expected to contrast their agenda with Republican policies that they say are harmful to women.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney is acknowledging that he suffers from a gender gap, but his aides say he will improve his standing with women by emphasizing economic issues and by deploying his wife Ann more prominently. Ann Romney has proven to be a popular speaker on the campaign trail, and her husband's advisers say she softens his image and reinforces the impression that he is honest, steady, civic-minded, and committed to his family.
The major-party leaders also jumped into the fray Thursday. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told Bloomberg TV that the Democrats and the media have manufactured a fictional story line that the GOP is waging a war on women.
"If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we'd have problems with caterpillars," Priebus said. "It's a fiction."
But Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz told Bloomberg TV that recent polls show that President Obama is far ahead of Romney among women in battleground states. "The jury of women across America have ruled that the Republicans have been unbelievably extreme and out of touch and hyper-focused on social issues," Wasserman-Schultz said.
The White House is using the president's bully pulpit to make the case that it is Obama who deserves women's support. To that end, Friday's forum will "highlight ways the administration has helped create economic security for women," says a White House official, "and recognizes that women are key to economic growth and competitiveness."
Among those participating, in addition to the president, will be key members of the administration, signaling how important Team Obama considers the female electorate. They include Attorney General Eric Holder; Valerie Jarrett, chairwoman of the White House Council on Women and Girls; Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
As Wasserman-Schultz noted, recent polls show that Obama already has strong support among female voters against Romney, and White House officals don't want it to slip away.
The latest USA Today-Gallup poll in a dozen swing states shows Obama with the 2-to-1 advantage among female voters under age 50 and an 18-point advantage among all women. Romney leads narrowly among men. This gender gap is a key reason why Obama is ahead of Romney overall in those swing states.
But Romney is trying to scramble back into contention among women. Questioned at a conference of newspaper editors in Washington Wednesday, Romney acknowledged the gender gap but said optimistically, "I will win by having the support of men and women and in the battleground states and across the country." He added that both women and men are most worried about jobs, high gasoline prices, and the overall economy, and Obama has failed to deliver. "That's what women care about in this country," he said.
But Obama and Democratic strategists say women care about more than just the economy. and are worried, for example, about healthcare and education.
One flashpoint came last month when the administration tried to require faith-based employers to provide health coverage for contraception, which some religions, including Catholicism, oppose. Faced with growing opposition, the administration took a different path. In the course of that debate, some Republicans emphasized social issues such as abortion and birth control, and pollsters say many women felt the GOP was not focusing enough on the economy.