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.
But the candidate did not unveil any new policy proposals tailored to women. Instead, speaking at several women-owned businesses with scores of women behind him as a backdrop, Romney hit many of the same themes that he has been for months: what he views as Obama’s ineffectual $787-billion government stimulus program, financial regulations that he says have slowed lending and business growth, and a burgeoning deficit that he says has made it difficult for the economy to recover.
At his events, he argued that those policies had harmed women’s ability to find well-paying jobs. But during a conference call with reporters, his policy director offered no specific rationale as to how those policies had affected women more than men.
Romney’s advisors also faced an embarrassing moment when they could not immediately explain the candidate’s position on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to sue over pay discrimination. Ultimately his advisors said under pressure that he did not favor changes to the act, complicating his efforts to appeal to conservatives, many of whom found the Ledbetter legislation offensive.
With little new material to offer on the policy front, the Romney campaign seemed to gain the most traction by seizing on Rosen’s comment that the candidate’s wife “never worked a day in her life” — phrasing that sparked outrage among many women.
Though Rosen has no role in the Obama campaign, Romney’s female surrogates piled on during a conference call Thursday, asserting that her comment reflected the president’s true views on women who stay home to raise children. Rep.Cynthia M. Lummis(R-Wyo.) charged that the Obama campaign was using surrogate women, including Rosen, “to deliver messages about Republicans that the president does not want to deliver himself.”
The Obama campaign dismissed the assertions as ludicrous.
The Romney campaign also deployed its most powerful surrogate: Ann Romney. In a Fox News interview, she brushed off Rosen’s comments with a laugh and called for “all of us” to “respect the choices that women make.”
Disputing Rosen’s charge that her husband does not view women as equals, she pointed to the “many women in his circle” who have advised him in his government and business careers.
“Mitt Romney is a person that admires women and listens to them, and I am grateful that he listens to me and listens to what I am telling him, as well as about what women are facing right now,” she said. “He’s listening and he cares.”
The president and his wife also weighed in.
“Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected,” Michelle Obama said via Twitter.
“There is no tougher job than being a mom,” the president said later during a White House interview with an Iowa television station.
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.
This article first appeared at latimes.com