FAIRFAX, Va. — The stands behind the stage were jammed with women — white, black, Hispanic, Asian, college students, career moms and retirees — a striking visual reminder of President Barack Obama's advantages over Mitt Romney.
"When it comes to issues critical to women, the right to make your own decision about your health, the right to be treated fairly and equally in the workplace, Gov. Romney wants to take us to policies more suited to the 1950s," said Obama, who wore a pink wristband for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Obama has been prosecuting a Republican "war on women" for months, and he arrived at George Mason University last week with new ammo. Three days earlier, Romney said he had "binders full of women" in response to a debate question about hiring practices while he was governor of Massachusetts.
The raucous cheers that greeted Obama in Fairfax, however, belied a whiff of panic.
His once wide lead among women has fallen in the past month. Obama, who won the women vote by 13 percentage points in 2008, cannot afford to give ground among the reliable Democratic voter base because men have steadily left his side.
Women typically tune into elections late but they did in time to catch Romney's commanding first debate performance on Oct. 3. A Pew Research Center poll showed Obama's 18-percentage-point advantage among women had vanished and the candidates were even.
"The debate came at a very opportune moment," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, noting that Obama has regained some ground. "Women saw a Romney they liked and had some good solutions and wanted to give him a chance."
So the war on women has become an intense war for women, who make up a greater share of undecided voters.
"I'm still trying to decide," said Sandy Smith, 66, of Fairfax, who voted for Obama in 2008. She said his focus on abortion and contraception matters less than his plans for the economy.
"We haven't gotten any better under Obama, but I know the economy was a complete mess and it takes longer than four years. But maybe Romney can change things. He's a businessman."
Campaigns are bombarding the airwaves and mailboxes in key battleground states such as Florida, where Obama will likely play up his record on women's issues during a rally this morning in Tampa.
Nowhere is the fight for women voters more intense than Virginia, where women made up 54 percent of the vote in 2008, 1 percentage point higher than nationally, and helped make Obama the first Democrat to win the state since 1964. In the past year, the state has become a hotbed for women's issues, with attempted bans on abortion and passage of a bill requiring women to get an ultrasound exam before going through with an abortion. Democrats have sought to link Romney to such policies.
But Romney has worked to broaden his appeal to women. A month before Obama's rally, Romney held his own in Fairfax and similarly filled the stands behind him with women and spoke about what he could do to boost the middle class.
Last week, Romney launched a TV ad that said he does not oppose contraception and thinks abortion should be legal in cases of incest or when the mother's life is in jeopardy.
Feeling the squeeze, Obama is amping up his characterizations of Romney as a throwback to a different era.
Mail pieces in Virginia play off Romney's statements about removing federal funding for Planned Parenthood and past statements about seeking to overturn Roe vs. Wade. A TV ad shows Romney in a 2007 GOP primary debate saying he would be "delighted" to sign a bill banning all abortions.
Susan Shome, 60, who was shopping in Fairfax last week, said she was leaning toward Romney for economic reasons but conceded Obama's ads were resonating.
"They're trying to make it seem like if you vote for Romney you'll lose all your rights," Shome said. "But on the other hand, I'm thinking you can't take away those rights."
Florida has intensified, too. Voters are getting a mailer that reads, "Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's ideas on women's health are shocking and dangerous."
But as in Virginia, an overriding concern is the economy.
"I'm worried about graduation and where I go from there," said Raychel Briggs of Tampa, a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University, who plans to vote for Romney.
Savanah Goodland, 22, a student at the University of South Florida and Obama campaign intern, said the women's vote means more now than ever because women are increasingly providing for their households. "Women are really asserting themselves now."
She mentioned the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women to challenge pay equity issues, as evidence that Obama has been looking out for women since the beginning of his term.
"I feel like he is truly understanding, having two daughters," she added.
Ultimately the election may come down to "Wal-mart moms" — women with a child under 18 at home who shop at the retail giant and have middle-of-the-road ideological views.
In 2008, these voters, who make up about 15 percent of the overall electorate, went for Obama, said Alex Bratty, a Republican pollster who studies the demographic. In the 2010 midterm elections, Wal-mart moms swung late to Republican candidates because of the poor economy.
Now they hang in the balance.
"They look at President Obama and see someone who is very personable, very relatable," Bratty said. "But he has not delivered for them and they question is this what they want for the next four years? On the other hand, they see Mitt Romney and see someone who doesn't quite connect as well, but he does have this successful track record in business.
"You can see them grappling with this decision," she added. "When you talk about abortion and contraception they say, 'Yes that's important.' But it's not the thing keeping them up at night."
Times staff writers Susan Thurston, Shelley Rossetter and Katie Sanders contributed reporting from Tampa. Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]