The biggest threat to Mitt Romney's presidential prospects may not be his penchant for gaffes. Or President Barack Obama's flush campaign account. It's certainly not Rick Santorum.
The biggest threat may turn out to be people like St. Petersburg retiree Lorraine McCann, who started volunteering for the Obama campaign in February when Planned Parenthood and women's health care suddenly became a central issue in the country's political debate.
"It was the information in the news about these Republican politicians, talking, almost obsessively, about contraception,'' said McCann, 66. "It just blows me away. It's almost like they're dinosaurs. … I can tell you there's an army of us women who feel the same way. I hear about it every day."
The Republican Party has a serious woman problem.
Democrats typically fare better than Republicans with female voters in national elections, but a series of recent national polls show that the gender gap has become enormous.
A March survey by the Pew Research Center found Obama and Romney tied among men nationally, but Obama leading among women by 20 percentage points. A USA Today/Gallup poll of voters in Florida and 11 other swing states that was released last week found Obama leading Romney among women by 18 percentage points.
Four years ago Obama narrowly won Florida when he beat John McCain among women by 5 percentage points, according to exit polls. A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters in late March showed Obama beating Romney among women by 14 points and leading the state overall by 7 points.
"The gender gap is nothing new, but the question is how large it is,'' said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "What we're seeing now is an unusually large one. And it's not just Romney. All the Republican governors who got elected in 2010 are doing much better among men than women."
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It has been a rough few months for Republicans hoping to win over female voters by focusing on the economy.
There was the uproar over the Obama administration's announcement that under its health care reform program, religiously affiliated employers would be required to cover birth control under their insurance plans. The administration amended the plan, but the controversy looked less like a debate about religious freedom than about women's access to health care.
Republicans held an all-male panel to discuss the matter, declining to allow Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke to testify. When she did testify before a Democratic panel, talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh spent days attacking her as a "slut" and "prostitute" before advertiser backlash forced him to apologize. Neither Romney nor Santorum denounced Limbaugh for the attacks.
When the Susan G. Komen breast cancer charity opted to defund Planned Parenthood affiliates — and later reverse course — Republicans were front and center denouncing Planned Parenthood, a major abortion provider though abortion accounts for only 3 percent of its services. Asked about Planned Parenthood, Romney said he wanted to "get rid of" the organization, which mainly provides contraceptives, cancer screenings and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.
These distractions will be old news soon enough, say Republican strategists. They argue that the gender gap is sure to narrow once the general election begins in earnest and voters focus more on the choice between Obama and Romney.
"The president is very good at dividing this country, but Republicans need to stay on the issue of the economy and not be pulled into a phony war on women or phony contraceptive war,'' said Sharon Day of Fort Lauderdale, vice chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. "If Romney gets out there and does that and we have a media that lets more than one message be heard, we can show what a complete failure this president has been for women and for America."
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As toddlers scampered around the play equipment at Kate Jackson Park in Tampa one morning last week, Heather Barrow sounded enthusiastic about Romney.
"I appreciate that he's not ultraconservative, and he's more in the middle,'' said Barrow, a Republican mother of two.
Her friend, registered independent Kim Barrs, also expects to vote for Romney but with little enthusiasm.
"Barack Obama is very personable and comes across well, like you'd want to hang out with him," Barrs said, contrasting him to Romney. "I watch the president on TV and almost have to remind myself that I don't agree with a lot of his policies."
Romney's wooden demeanor was on display last week at a gathering of newspaper editors when someone asked him about his weakness among women. The former Massachusetts governor sounded as if he needs his wife, Ann, to decipher female voters.
"My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own and also with me, and she reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy, and getting good jobs for their kids and for themselves," Romney said. "They are concerned about gasoline prices, the cost of getting to and from work, taking their kids to school or to practice and so forth after school."
On Friday, Obama spoke at a forum by the White House Council on Women and Girls, which seemed at least as much about politics as policy. He spoke of the influence of his grandmother, his mother, wife and daughters, and touted accomplishments in areas important to women, including the controversial health care overhaul.
"Last year, more than 20 million women received expanded access to preventive services like mammograms and cervical cancer screenings at no additional cost. Nearly 2 million women enrolled in Medicare received a 50 percent discount on the medicine that they need. Over 1 million more young women are insured because they can now stay on their parents' plan. And later this year, women will receive new access to recommended preventive care like domestic violence screening and contraception at no additional cost," said Obama, whose Florida campaign has a full-time staffer focused on female voters.
The Republican National Committee used the event as an opportunity to release some grim economic statistics:
• Since Obama took office, the unemployment rate for women rose from 7 to 8.1 percent.
• The number of female employees has declined by 683,000.
• The poverty rate among women rose to 14.5 percent last year, the highest rate in 17 years.
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While debates over contraceptive coverage or Planned Parenthood have drawn much of the media attention lately, the gender gap extends to a wide array of issues.
"For more than a decade, women have been more likely than men to favor an active role for government. And recent surveys show that higher percentages of women than men say that government should do more for the poor, children and the elderly," Pew Research said in a recently released report.
Quinnipiac's Brown suggested the wide gender gap apparent lately is related to much more than Limbaugh outbursts.
"Women tend to be more risk averse and more security oriented," he said. "The Republicans for the most part are for cuts in budgets that women more than men see as potentially a threat to their economic security and those around them."
Recent polls point to independent and swing voter women moving toward Democrats in recent months, but there also is anecdotal evidence that the GOP rhetoric has helped energize the Democratic base.
Anne Sankowski, 58, a retired postal worker in Tampa, said she started volunteering for the Obama campaign in September after listening to then-candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry sound "like religious fanatics."
That, along with the union-busting efforts in Wisconsin and talk of cutting Medicare for future beneficiaries, fired her up to get active politically: "It's just everything they've been talking about for the last six months is backward movement not just for women, but for everybody.''
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]