With polls showing support from women giving him an edge over Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama used a White House conference Friday to tout his administration's work on women's issues and warn that Republicans would erase the achievements.
Though he never mentioned Romney - or the word Republican - in his 20-minute speech, Obama cautioned an auditorium of female entrepreneurs, academics and business leaders against returning "to the policies that got us into so many of the problems that we've been dealing with in the first place. That's what's at stake."
"When it comes to our efforts on behalf of women and girls, I'm proud of the accomplishments that we can point to," he said. He cited the first bill he signed into law, making it easier for women to demand equal pay, along with efforts to boost the number of girls taking science and math classes. "We've got a lot more to do. But there's no doubt we've made progress."
Citing his signature health care law - which Republicans and Romney have vowed to repeal - Obama charged that "they're not just saying we should stop protecting women with pre-existing conditions. They're also saying we should kick about a million young women off their parents' health care plans."
He also took issue with GOP support for cutting government funding of Planned Parenthood, saying: "They're not just talking about restricting a woman's ability to make her own health decision. They're talking about denying, as a practical matter, the preventive care like mammograms that millions of women rely on."
His remarks at the White House Forum on Women and the Economy came as Romney this week strengthened his grip on the GOP nomination and as polls indicate that Obama is benefiting from the national debate over access to contraceptives. At the event, some of the loudest applause followed his remarks that under his health care law, women would receive contraception "at no additional cost."
A USA Today/Gallup poll this week found Obama leading Romney among women by 18 points in 12 key battleground states. A McClatchy-Marist national poll found Obama leading Romney among female voters by 48 percent to 42 percent, and by 49 percent to 40 percent vs. Rick Santorum.
The gender gap between the parties is decades old, Marist pollster Lee Miringoff said. But it widened as the parties argued over the Obama administration's decision to require religious-affiliated institutions to provide contraceptive coverage to employees.
"You saw the mobilization of the Democratic base when the narrative switched to women's health," Miringoff said. "That gap is wider because of the dustup, and that's not lost on the campaigns."
Romney, who was asked about the gender gap when he spoke before the American Society of News Editors on Wednesday, noted that Republicans traditionally have faced a gender gap and accused Democrats of doing an "effective job" of "trying to mischaracterize" the party's stance on women's issues.
Romney added that he expects to attract both men and women by focusing on "the issues that women and men care most about" - namely, the economy.
He said his wife, Ann - a significant presence on the campaign trail - "reports to me regularly that the issue that women care about most is the economy. They're concerned about high gasoline prices, the cost of getting to and from work. That's what women care about in this country, and my vision is to get America working again."
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said he expects the numbers to narrow as the general election ramps up. He said the economy will remain the focus.
"I think the real Obama record is a failure to create jobs and to get the economy moving," he said.
But Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office - who thanked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at Friday's White House conference for the decision to require contraceptive coverage - said that women are unusually motivated by what they see as an effort to retreat on issues like contraception.
"It's just shocking to me that something like contraception is so controversial; we thought we won that battle decades ago," she said. "These are policies that affect women's lives."
Administration officials insisted before the event that it was not political, noting that Obama convened the White House Council on Women and Girls that hosted the event soon after taking office. They noted it was being held only a few days after March - Women's History Month.
But Obama - who appears in more than a dozen pictures in a 65-page progress report issued by the council - sounded a number of political points, arguing that the "conversation" over women's issues "has been oversimplified."
"Women are not some monolithic bloc," he said. "Women are not an interest group. You shouldn't be treated that way."
He expressed incredulity that expansion of an 18-year-old federal law that created a national strategy to prevent domestic violence against women has been blocked in Congress. Opponents fear it would broaden American Indian tribal rights and has too many protections for gay and illegal immigrant victims of violence.
"When something like the Violence Against Women Act ... is suddenly called to question, that makes no sense," he said. "That's not something we should still be arguing about."
Obama - who noted that 80 percent of his household is female - called his commitment to women's issues "personal." He talked about the single mother who raised him, his grandmother who watched as younger men she had trained were promoted ahead of her, and of his wife and two daughters.
"As a father, one of my highlights of every day is asking my daughters about their day, their hopes and their futures," he said. "Every decision I make is all about making sure they and all our daughters and all our sons grow up in a country that gives them the chance to be anything they set their minds to."
But he acknowledged one unmet goal.
"We haven't gotten the dry cleaning thing yet," Obama said in a joking reference to constant complaints that dry cleaners charge women more than men to launder their garments. "I know that that's still frustrating, I'm sure."
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