For the past two weeks, the campaigns of both President Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney have accused each other of waging a war on women. But what's really going on is a war for women's votes.
The president, like Democrats before him, has an advantage with female voters — who make up 53 percent of the American electorate. Romney is trying to close the gender gap by using his most powerful and popular surrogate: his wife.
"I've had the fun of being out with my wife the last several days on the campaign trail, and she points out that as she talks to women, they tell her that their No. 1 concern is the economy," Romney has said.
Ann Romney is a warm, natural presence on the stump, and she has become Mitt Romney's No. 1 ambassador to female voters. The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish, co-author of the book The Real Romney, says Ann Romney is even more than that.
"Ann Romney has always been a big asset for Mitt, really to humanize him. He has had trouble connecting with the average voter really since he first got in public life," Kranish says. "And she has provided a real softening for him and a human touch. ... I think the way Mitt Romney sees it is that she is a woman and that she will innately understand the needs and concerns of women more than he will."
Attack And Counterattack
The Romney campaign was thrilled last week when Ann Romney became the subject of a big misfire from Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, who said Romney's wife had "actually never worked a day in her life."
The Obama camp was put on the defensive for an attack on a well-liked woman who has raised five boys and struggled with breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. But then Ann Romney was overheard crowing about the political benefits — she called it an early birthday gift to be attacked as a mother.
"That was really a defining moment and I loved it," she said.
The next day, she had to explain herself on ABC News.
"That wasn't how I meant it. It was a birthday gift to me because I love the fact that we're talking about this," she said.
By "this," Ann Romney said, she meant the economy.
But other Republicans aren't shy about touting the upside of the attack on Mrs. Romney.
"It was dismissive. It was arrogant," says Republican pollster Linda DiVall. "It was unbelievably shocking to hear another woman talk about Ann Romney in such a way, and I think that is something that really registered with women across the country."
A Larger Conversation?
Over time, DiVall predicts, that will help Mitt Romney. But right now the gender gap looks pretty durable.
A CNN poll taken after the controversy shows the president still beating Romney by 16 points with women, a much bigger margin than Romney's advantage with men. But it's very early in the race.
Nonpartisan pollster J. Ann Selzer says Romney has an opening with women but needs to do more.
"It will only have an effect if it links up to something more substantive," she says. "Is there a bigger conversation about women's role in the economy?"
Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, a surrogate for the Romney campaign, says yes. That bigger conversation with women is about health care, debt and taxes.
"When you look at the number of women that are starting businesses at a record pace, they understand regulations and taxes and tax burden," she says. "As the Republicans can continue to remind women of why they oppose ... the policies that have been driven by President Obama ... [women] will look favorably on the Republican approach."
McMorris Rodgers says Obama's policies fueled women's swing to the GOP in 2010 — the first time Republicans won the women's vote in 30 years. But since then, women have swung back to the president.
While Romney focuses on macro issues like the deficit and jobs — where he is the strongest — the Obama campaign is focusing on micro issues like contraception or Romney's promise to get rid of Planned Parenthood. Those issues, says Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, drove female voters away from the Republicans this year.
"The gender gap wasn't created out of nowhere. It was created because they have systematically, over the course of the last year-and-a-half of Mitt Romney running, seen him move away [from] or undermine issues that they care about," Cutter says.
So while Romney figures out the best way to ease the gender gap, the president is continuing to do what he can to maintain it — with frequent events aimed at women.