WASHINGTON — With the election still locked in a near-tie, the politics of gender and race have moved into the spotlight of the presidential campaign.
For most of the summer, the debate has focused on two things: the state of the economy and Mitt Romney's background in business. But in recent days, the two campaigns have added new, sharp-edged issues to the mix.
On Wednesday, President Obama flew to Colorado, a key battleground, where he pushed the issue of access to contraceptives, which is also the subject of a campaign ad in swing states featuring quotes from Romney attacking Planned Parenthood.
In Denver, Obama was introduced by Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who briefly became a political celebrity this spring when her comments about the need for Catholic universities to provide contraceptive coverage drew an attack by radio host Rush Limbaugh, who called her a "slut."
While Obama sought to expand the gender gap, which is especially pronounced among single women, Romney spent a second day going after the president about welfare, using a line of attack that centers on the administration's willingness to let states change current welfare-to-work rules.
Speaking in Iowa, Romney said Obama was seeking to create a "nation of government dependency" by watering down requirements that welfare recipients work for their benefits. A new Romney ad makes the case in tougher language, saying Obama "guts" welfare reform.
The welfare issue is a potentially powerful one. It motivates voters with concerns about government spending, and political science research over the years shows feelings about blacks.
The rise of that issue underscores an inescapable part of the current election: With Obama winning the lion's share of support from minority voters, a determining factor in the election will be how big of a majority Romney gets among whites.
Recent polling data from swing states demonstrates that. Obama loses badly among white men, but in the states where he has been able to keep a lead, he has done so because support from white women offsets that deficit. For the president's reelection team, a key goal is to expand the size of that female majority. Romney, meanwhile, needs to boost his support among white voters by reminding them of their anxieties about Obama's presidency.
A new round of polls from closely divided states highlights those racial and gender divisions. Comparing two hotly contested swing states, polls by Quinnipiac University for the New York Times and CBS News show Obama behind by 5 percentage points among likely voters in Colorado, 45% to 50%, but ahead by 6 percentage points in Ohio, 50% to 44%. A central reason for the difference was that in Ohio, Obama only narrowly trailed Romney among white voters, while in Colorado he was losing by 13 percentage points among whites.
The white voters most opposed to Obama have consistently been men who do not have a college degree. Among those voters, Obama trailed by 32 percentage points in Colorado and 24 percentage points in Ohio. He trailed by an even bigger margin, 42 percentage points, among non-college-educated white men in a third swing state, Virginia, according to the Quinnipiac surveys.
One repeated finding of polls over the last decade has been that white men without college educations strongly believe Washington has failed to look out for their interests and think that government spending primarily benefits others -- including insider elites and minorities. The Romney campaign's sally into the welfare issue hits directly at those concerns.
Both in his ad and his speeches, Romney has tried to contrast Obama with former President Clinton, who signed the 1996 law that put time limits on welfare and added work requirements.
"President Clinton and the Republicans who were in Congress at the time came together on a bipartisan basis and said welfare in the future is going to require work," Romney told a few hundred supporters in a high school auditorium in downtown Des Moines. "People who receive payments from the government are going to be required to do work, not as a punitive measure but as a gift. Work is enhancing; work is elevating."
By contrast, Romney said, Obama "with a very careful executive action ... removed the requirement of work from welfare."
Obama's action did not, in fact, remove the work requirement from the welfare law. The administration issued a statement in mid-July saying that it would give states waivers that would allow them greater flexibility to set up welfare-to-work programs but would require them to show that their programs increase the number of welfare recipients who get work. The move was in response to requests from several states, including California, but also such Republican bastions as Utah.
Clinton defended Obama on Tuesday night, saying in a statement that the ad was "not true."