April 12 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney spent his first full day as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee making a direct appeal to women, part of an effort to repair the political damage caused by a combative primary contest.
Surrounded by dozens of female business-owners yesterday at a warehouse in Hartford, Connecticut, Romney worked to deflect Democratic attacks that he isn’t sufficiently supportive of women and close what a poll showed was an almost 20-point deficit to President Barack Obama among female voters.
“I was disappointed in listening to the president as he’s saying, ‘Oh, Republicans are waging a war on women,’” Romney told his audience. “The real war on women is being waged by the president’s failed economic policies.”
Yet even as Romney worked to show sensitivity to women’s issues, a misstep by a top campaign aide and the candidate’s own questionable assertion about job losses by women as the U.S. struggled in recent years threatened to undermine his efforts.
The dust-ups underscored the challenge Romney faces as he works to pivot to the general election. With rival Rick Santorum’s April 10 exit from the Republican race virtually assuring him his party’s nomination, Romney and his campaign are focusing on courting swing voting blocs, starting with many suburban women.
Romney and his Republican rivals, though, spent much of the past year courting their party’s base by touting their opposition to abortion rights, backing legislation to allow some employers to deny health insurance coverage for contraception, and vowing to stop federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a women’s health organization that provides routine medical examinations and cancer screenings along with abortion services.
Switching the political conversation won’t be easy for Romney, as illustrated during a conference call his campaign held yesterday with reporters before the Hartford event. Asked whether Romney supports the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Lanhee Chen, his policy director, said he would have to research the matter before answering.
“We’ll get back to you on that,” he said, after a six-second pause.
The law, the first Obama signed as president in 2009, made it easier for women to file equal-pay lawsuits.
Chen’s comment quickly became Democratic political fodder. Within hours, the Obama campaign circulated a critical statement from Ledbetter, the Alabama woman for whom the act was named.
“I was shocked and disappointed to hear that Mitt Romney is not willing to stand up for women and their families,” she said.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina sent an e-mail to supporters detailing the “five things” to know about Romney. Number one on the list: “Romney’s positions are the most radically anti-women of any candidate in a generation.”
Romney aides sought to quell the flap, saying their candidate had no intention of changing the law.
“Of course Mitt Romney supports pay equity for women,” Amanda Henneberg, a Romney spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement following Chen’s remark. “The real question is whether President Obama supports jobs for women.”
A new debate was stirred last night when Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen appeared to criticize the candidate’s wife, saying in an interview on CNN that Ann Romney “has actually never worked a day in her life.”
“She’s never dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of women in this country are facing,” said Rosen, a Democratic National Committee adviser with close ties to the White House.
Ann Romney responded to Rosen’s comments with her first posting on Twitter: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work,” she wrote.
Her third son, Josh, defended that decision, saying on his Twitter feed that his mother “is one of the smartest, hardest working woman I know. Could have done anything with her life, chose to raise me.”
Democrats, too, were critical. Within an hour of Rosen’s remarks, Messina and Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod sent Twitter messages calling the comments “inappropriate” and “wrong.”
At his rally yesterday, Romney pressed his case that Obama will do “anything he can to deflect from his record” on the economy, and he charged that the administration’s failure to effectively manage the economic recovery has had a disproportionate impact on women.
Waving a glossy flier, he read from a campaign document titled “Women and the Obama Economy” distributed by aides before the event.
“This is an amazing statistic,” Romney said. “The percentage of jobs lost by women in the president’s three, three and a half years, 92.3 percent of all the jobs lost during the Obama years have been lost by women. Ninety-two point three percent!”
That statistic was later rated “mostly false” by PolitiFact, a nonpartisan website that checks political claims.
Male-dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing lost more jobs early in the U.S. economic downturn -- when George W. Bush was president -- while women were more heavily represented in the job losses that came in the later months, when state and local governments laid off public-sector workers such as teachers.
Romney is counting job losses from the start of the Obama administration, a time frame that only counts the later part of the recession. Overall, more men than women have lost jobs during the entirety of the nation’s economic struggles, reported the site.
‘Critical Facts’ Ignored
“There is a small amount of truth to the claim, but it ignores critical facts that would give a different impression,” according to PolitiFact.
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last week, Obama was ahead of Romney among female voters by 19 percentage points. Among all the registered voters surveyed April 5-8, Obama led Romney by seven points, 51 percent to 44 percent.
Obama won the overall popular vote 53 percent to 46 percent over Republican John McCain, an Arizona senator, in the 2008 presidential race, benefiting from 13-point advantage among female voters.
Factors complicating Romney’s bid to pitch himself to women will include a federal budget pushed by the House Republican leadership that he has endorsed.
The plan, drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, calls for reductions in food stamps, two-thirds of whose adult recipients are women; Pell grants, about two-thirds of which go to female college students; Medicaid, about 70 percent of whose beneficiaries are female, and child care, according to a Bloomberg News analysis.
As he campaigned in Wisconsin prior to the state’s April 3 primary, Romney frequently appeared with Ryan, driving home the link between the two.
Romney said yesterday that he has time to reintroduce himself to a general election audience before November’s election.
“The campaign started yesterday, the general election campaign,” Romney said in an interview on Fox News. “We have some time ahead, seven months in the general election campaign.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com