News Column

The 'War on Women' Sparks a Battle for Votes

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Who's really waging the so-called "war on women"?

Barack Obama, Democrats and feminists accuse Republicans of firing the first shots and aiming to keep women down. Mitt Romney, Republicans and conservative women's groups blame Democrats for starting the fight for political gain.

"Women, in particular, have been hurt by this president," Romney, the presumed GOP presidential nominee, recently told Fox News.

There's little question that the political battle for the women's vote is intensifying, as Democrats were on the march this weekend across the nation -- including Jefferson City and Topeka -- protesting what they see as an assault on reproductive rights.

Yet some wonder whether the fierce infighting, and the so-called "gender gap" between the candidates, will have much impact on the outcome of the presidential election this fall, and whether any of this is all that new.

Democrats traditionally hold an edge with women voters, while Republicans tend to do better among men.

When the smoke clears, however, the economy could still be the deciding factor in November. If it's improving, Obama could easily win re-election. If it's in decline, say hello to President Romney.

"The economy makes or breaks an incumbent president," said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty. "Where issues like this become more important is if the economy is in a gray area in the run-up to the election."

Still, Democrats insist the furor over Rush Limbaugh and what they describe as GOP attacks on women has stirred their base after years of lethargy due to the faltering economy. That reawakening was on display Saturday as hundreds marched on the state Capitols in Kansas and Missouri.

"It is essential that we stand up for our rights now and work together against this effort to destroy women's rights," said Paula Willmarth, a co-leader of the Missouri march.

"People are riled up again," agreed Lesa Patterson-Kinsey, president of True Blue Women, a group of Kansas Democratic women.

Republicans, however, call Democratic efforts to focus on gender "clumsy" and "divisive."

"What they (Democrats) are doing is floating balloons and seeing what catches on," said Patrick Tuohey, a business and GOP political consultant based in Kansas City. "And something that catches on now may have absolutely no bearing on what may happen in November."

In an emotional speech on Friday, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio accused Democrats of inventing a Republican war on women.

"Now we are going to have a fight over women's health," Boehner said. "Give me a break. This is the latest plank in the so-called 'war on women' entirely created -- entirely created -- by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain. To accuse us of wanting to gut women's health is absolutely not true."

That a gender gap exists in American politics is unmistakable.

In 2008, Obama won the presidency precisely because of it. Exit surveys showing Obama and John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, virtually splitting the vote among men -- 49 percent to 48 percent in favor of Obama, according to The New York Times' exit poll. But among women, Obama won 56 percent to 43 percent.

That begins to explain why Obama and the Democrats consider women key to their re-election prospects.

But recent polls show that Obama may not be performing as well among women this time around. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll had Obama leading among women by 49 percent to 43 percent, with Romney leading by an identical spread among men. But a Pew Research Center survey this month had Obama leading among women by 54 percent to 40 percent.

The White House has gone into overdrive to maintain any advantage it has. Officials released a detailed 65-page report that recounts the administration's accomplishments on behalf of women.

The president also recorded a video on behalf of Planned Parenthood, saying, "So when some professional politician casually says that they'll get rid of Planned Parenthood, don't forget what they're really talking about -- eliminating the funding for preventative care that millions of women rely on."

Obama typically begins events where he touts his record by mentioning his support of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which became the first bill he signed as president. The act enabled women to pursue equal pay for equal work.

He condemned Limbaugh for branding a law student as a "slut" for advocating free birth control coverage, and he distanced himself from remarks by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen that Ann Romney "hasn't worked a day in her life."

"Women are not an interest group," Obama said in the Planned Parenthood video, adopting a line often used by women's groups. "They're mothers and daughters and sisters and wives. They're half of this country, and they're perfectly capable of making their own choices about their health."

Romney's camp hasn't been as aggressive in courting women, but he's tied the lack of women's financial progress to the still-sour state of the U.S. economy.

"People want jobs," Romney told Fox News. "If they want bigger paychecks, they can go vote for him. If they want jobs and a bright future and an opportunity, they can vote for me. I am in the race because I understand what it takes to make America strong again economically, culturally and militarily."

Romney said Obama had especially failed women when it comes to jobs. In fact, he said women had lost nine of every 10 jobs that disappeared during Obama's term, a claim that has been called "misleading" by the nonpartisan Politifact.com.

"After more than three years of the president's failed economic policies and nearly a million more unemployed women workers, women voters -- like all Americans -- realize we can't afford four more years of President Obama," Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said in a statement issued Friday.

Cathy Nugent, a business and Republican consultant, said the economy is key.

"I don't think the normal woman on the street is going to say, 'I'm voting against this person because of contraception,'" she said. "They're going to say, 'I have this much less money to spend for basketball and football and soccer, and less money to fill up my car or go on a vacation.'"

That Romney is about in the same position with women and men that McCain was at the end of the 2008 race is good news for the former Massachusetts governor, said his pollster, Neil Newhouse. He said the campaign is confident that it'll close the gap with women and expand it with men as the election approaches.

"Our economic message is going to resonate pretty well," Newhouse said. "The economy is going to drive voters in the end."

Still, many political observers believe Republican candidates didn't help themselves with many women voters during the primary season with their all-out rush to the right. At one point, rival candidate Rick Santorum said he believed that contraception was morally wrong. Romney, meanwhile, said he would "get rid" of Planned Parenthood and said he supported a measure by Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri to give any employer the chance to opt out of covering any health expense such as abortion for "moral reasons."

In addition, Romney's position on the Lilly Ledbetter Act has been unclear. Democrats also claim that Republicans want to repeal provisions of the new health care act that provide free screenings for breast cancer and other ailments.

At the state level, Republicans in many states continue to fight abortion rights and funding for Planned Parenthood. In Jefferson City, Democrats complained that GOP lawmakers pursued legislation that would make it easier for employers to discriminate based on race or gender.

On Friday, Democrats challenged the three Republican candidates for U.S. Senate from Missouri to say whether they would have supported the Violence Against Women Act that passed the Senate by 68-31 on Thursday. The three -- Sarah Steelman, John Brunner and Todd Akin -- have said they backed some version of the bill, but they have not said how they would have voted Thursday.

The three candidates "need to be crystal clear about whose side they're on," said Missouri Democratic Party spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki.

Republicans in general are more conservative these days than in recent years, said Barbara Sinclair, a UCLA political scientist emeritus.

"This (Republican) group now is really very far right by post-World War II American standards," she said.

Mark Nevins, a Democratic consultant working for Teresa Hensley, who's running in Missouri's 4th Congressional District, said Republicans have helped his party this year with their "tin ear" on women's issues. That's created a more charged environment, he said.

"Republicans have driven undecided or wavering female voters toward Democrats with their careless approach," Nevins said.

But he acknowledged that the candidates have a long road to travel before November. By then, the race could come down to the old political adage -- it's the economy, stupid.

"That's the dynamic," said Kansas State University political scientist Joe Aistrup, "that will change how individuals vote."

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