When a Democratic strategist asserted that stay-at-home mom Ann Romney… (M. Spencer Green, Associated…)
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The shrill debate over a Democratic strategist's assertion that stay-at-home mom Ann Romney should not be advising her husband about women's economic travails glossed over the bind that Mitt Romney finds himself in as he pivots to the fall election.
The problem is this: Many of the economic policies that the former Massachusetts governor has embraced during the contentious Republican primary could make it much harder for him to appeal to the moderate and independent women who are key to his quest for the White House.
The gender gap Romney faces is stark. He trailed President Obama among women by 19 percentage points in a Washington Post/ABC News poll this week — a slide that began in the midst of the Republican primary debate over issues like access to birth control. Perhaps most ominously, a USA Today/Gallup survey released last week found that Obama had opened a 14-percentage-point lead over Romney among independent women in 12 swing states.
While the campaigns tangled this week over ancillary issues like whether Romney was using a fair statistic to describe job losses among women during Obama's presidency, or the stances of several of his female surrogates on controversial issues like transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, the more crucial question is what the toll has been of his sometimes harsh rhetoric on issues of concern to moderate women, like budget priorities, immigration and the nation's social safety net.
On those topics, Romney has at times boxed himself in. He has pounded Obama for job losses among women during his tenure, yet rarely acknowledged that many of those cuts were in government jobs that would be sliced further under his proposals, which would shrink government employment by 10%.
Though middle-of-the-road female voters tend to be more concerned than conservative women about maintaining the nation's social safety net and expanding healthcare access, Romney has vowed to repeal Obama's healthcare law, rein in the growth of programs like Medicare and get rid of government aid to Planned Parenthood. He rarely touts his own efforts to expand access to healthcare in Massachusetts, because the program has become such a liability for him among Republican voters.
In his haste to show his credentials as a fiscal conservative, Romney also has repeatedly criticized the president for promising voters "free stuff" — by implication trashing programs like education subsidies that are popular among women voters.
During an Ohio town hall meeting in late February, a young woman who had just started law school asked Romney how he would help students afford the rising cost of higher education. "I hope you shopped around and tried to find a school that had the lowest possible tuition," he replied.
"There will be some people that get up in a setting like this and talk about how they are going to give you a bunch of government money — free stuff," Romney continued. "If that's what you want in a president, well you've already got that president. That's not who I am, all right?"
Those kinds of comments have been carefully chronicled by the Obama campaign over the last year — creating a library of clips that they have already begun using against Romney.
White House spokesman Jay Carney hinted at that strategy Thursday when asked to address Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen's comment that Ann Romney, as a stay-at-home mother, shouldn't be advising her husband on the struggles of working women. Like Obama's top campaign advisors, Carney was critical of Rosen's comments, and eager to move on to the more substantive policy debate.
"We should also focus on where we disagree," Carney said, ticking off a series of Republican positions that the White House argues will hurt women. He noted that the Republican budget, which Romney has endorsed, would cut funding for programs that support low-income women and children, including Head Start, the Women, Infants and Children program, and supplemental nutritional aid for pregnant mothers.
Romney has yet to address those kinds of budget cuts in any detail, and with Rick Santorum's surprise exit from the GOP race this week, Romney's campaign has had little time to unroll its messaging for the general election. Perhaps because of the sudden shift, the campaign's efforts to turn the tables on Obama among women this week hit some notable snags.
Romney went out on the campaign trail armed with new statistics about job losses among women since Obama had taken office, and an aggressive new line that "the real war on women that has been waged by Obama's economic policies" — an argument he has promised to hammer daily throughout the fall campaign.