With just 15 days until Election Day and most polls showing a dead heat between President Obama and Mitt Romney, Democrats and Republicans have found common ground on all of about two matters: The race is close, and women voters will play a huge role in determining who comes out on top.
As Romney attempts to close in on Mr. Obama's advantage among women, his campaign is banking on the notion that a crucial sliver of females will be voting on economic issues -- and in favor of Romney's business record -- in a hard-hit economy. The Obama campaign, which has for months been relentlessly highlighting ongoing debates over social issues like abortion, contraception, and health care, is doing everything in its power to undermine that effort.
Whichever team is able to reach more women has a pretty good chance of seeing their candidate elected next month.
"It's the ballgame," says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Walsh.
Defining the debate
Democrats have long had an edge when it comes to female voters: The last time a Republican candidate won the women's vote was in 1988, when George H. W. Bush squeaked out a 1-point lead over Michael Dukakis. In 2008, Mr. Obama enjoyed a 13-point advantage over John McCain with the female vote, besting him 56-43 percent. Currently, the national and many any state polls show a gender gap favoring Mr. Obama to varying degrees -- a new Quinnipiac/CBS News survey of Ohio, for instance, shows the president holding on to a double-digit lead among women -- but a couple of polls have shown that gap may be narrowing.
Whether or not that's true has proven difficult to measure thus far, and the Obama campaign insists any slimming of the president's lead among women is a reflection of a general tightening of the race. But regardless of the numbers, it's undeniable that both campaigns are putting every imaginable effort into casting their candidate as the one who would better serve women.
For the Obama campaign, that means touting the president's record on women's issues -- with a strong focus on health care-oriented topics -- while highlighting Romney's conflicting positions on reproductive rights, contraceptive care, and pre-existing conditions as evidence that the candidate's pitch to women is disingenuous pandering.
On Friday, the Obama campaign released a new TV ad, "Seen," showcasing a clip of Romney saying he'd be "delighted" to sign a bill that would ban all abortions; a week earlier, it released an ad featuring a video of Romney promising to defund Planned Parenthood.
On the trail, the president has been aggressively targeting Romney for what he's casting as purposefully misleading views on abortion and contraceptive rights. On Friday, he" - a condition wherein, in his words, "you can't seem to remember" where you stand on certain issues.
"Mitt Romney has run as the ideal Tea Party candidate, severely conservative for the last six years running for president and in the last two weeks of this campaign, he's suddenly moving to the middle," said Stephanie Cutter, a top Obama campaign aide, in a Sunday appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation." " What about all those policies that he declared?"
The Romney campaign has attempted to blunt the force of these attacks, releasing anthat Romney would allow abortions in cases of rape, incest, and if the life of the mother was in danger. In the second presidential debate, he also argued that he doesn't believe "employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care of not," although he has for a measure that says employees shouldn't be required to provide free contraceptive care to their employees.
Broadly, however, his campaign's efforts to build support among women reflect the philosophy that those struggling financially will vote on jobs, not abortion.
"Across the country we are hosting roundtables and town hall meetings with women to talk about the issues most important to themselves, their businesses and their families," said Courtney Johnson, Women's Coalitions Director for the Romney campaign, in an email. "We are making sure that women everywhere are hearing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's plan to restore America as the best place in the world for a woman to find a job, start a business, and raise a family. What you see in the polls is this message resonating."
Indeed, in the Romney campaign's recent abortion-related ad, the featured woman says that while the abortion issue is "important" to her, she's "more concerned about the debt our children will be left with" -- a message the campaign no doubt hopes will resonate with women who see the ad.
"Mitt Romney is pro-life, with the exceptions he's laid out, so let's be honest - it's not like he's going to be able to go out there and campaign on abortion. That's just a reality," said Republican strategist Trey Hardin. "Barack Obama can campaign on [social issues such as abortion]. The social issues Romney is going to be speaking about to women are about creating an economic environment where men and women can compete equally."