Obama's female forum: Just in time for campaign?

(CBS News) Friday, The White House will host a forum on women and the economy, just as the latest political buzz focuses on the growing gender gap in America.

It's the talk of cable news - whichever Republican candidate President Obama faces starts from behind with one of the most important group of voters: women.

Romney: "Of course" Augusta National should allow women
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The White House is clearly aware of the president's gender advantage - but insists that has nothing to do with today's Forum on Women and the Economy.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in recent briefing with the press, "We're focusing on women because there are a number of issues that important with regards to women in the economy, women's safety, women in education, that are very distinct and important. And we're proud to host the conference."

Republicans, on the other hand, see a political calculation at work.

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said, "I know that our party has traditionally faced a gender gap, and I think that the Democratic Party has done an effective job trying to mischaracterize our views."

Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, said, "If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and mainstream media outlets talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we have problems with caterpillars."

But the numbers are striking. A recent USAToday/Gallup poll shows the president leading Romney among women voters by 18 points in 12 important swing states.

Why now? The last few months have seen a number of issues traditionally of concern to women.

A decision by a cancer advocacy group to pull funding from Planned Parenthood sparked a conversation about access to healthcare for lower income women.

And there was a controversy surrounding women's access to contraception under the president's health care bill - a disagreement seen privately by the White House as helping to bolster the president's standing with women. But publicly, the president's spokesman insists, nothing political going on around here, which led to this exchange at Thursday's briefing: When Fox News correspondent Ed Henry asked, "What day are you having a men's conference on the economy?" Carney replied, "Well, stay tuned."

A men's conference is not likely anytime soon, but the president has taken every opportunity lately to show that he cares about women. The White House was ready on Thursday when the president was asked about the controversy about whether women should be admitted as members of Augusta National Golf Club. His spokesman said he thinks it's long past time when women should be admitted.

For more with CBS News Senior White House Correspondent Bill Plante on "CBS This Morning" and to watch his full report, watch the video in the player above.

  • Bill Plante

    Bill Plante is a CBS News Senior White House Correspondent