Obama steps up effort to win over women

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Steve Contorno

President Obama, who helped spark a national debate over divisive women's health issues by insisting that religiously affiliated institutions pay for birth control under their health care plans, is now ramping up his courtship of the female voters who helped catapult him to victory four years ago.

The Obama campaign rolled out "Nurses for Obama" on Wednesday to play up the more populist aspects of his health care overhaul on the second anniversary of its signing and to rally women to his re-election effort.

Obama aides argued that Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney's call earlier this week to end funding for Planned Parenthood was evidence that Romney was "running to the right" to win the Republican nomination, but insisted that the strategy would backfire in the fall campaigns by alienating independent and moderate voters.

"American women can't trust Mitt Romney to stand up for them," Reynolds said.

Obama is capitalizing on a number of recent controversies to win over women.

The announcement by Susan G. Komen for the Cure last month that it was cutting off support for Planned Parenthood sparked a weeks-long debate over women's reproductive rights that reverberated on the campaign trail and in GOP-controlled statehouses nationwide. It came to a head when conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown University student a "slut" after she advocated before Congress for insurance companies to provide free birth control.

Obama quickly capitalized on the blunder, offering empathetic support for the female student, and his campaign doubled down by hosting events geared toward women. Staffers started "Women for Obama" last month in Virginia with 50 house parties and on Thursday will hold a woman-to-woman phone bank in Fairfax County.

Obama fueled the debate himself when he issued an order requiring religiously affiliated institutions, including hospitals, schools and charities, to pay for employees' birth control under their health plans. Church groups and Republicans were enraged, calling it an abridgement of religious liberty and forcing Obama to soften his plan. He now wants insurance companies rather than church-affiliated institutions to pay for that birth control.

Still, it's an uphill climb for Obama, who had a 12-point lead over Republican candidate Sen. John McCain among women in 2008 only after spending months trying to win over supporters of his vanquished Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton. Despite the recent focus on women's health, Obama's holds just a 4 percentage point lead over Romney with female voters, according to a Bloomberg poll released Wednesday.

"It's increasing the salience of these issues, but people aren't going to cast a ballot based on access to contraception," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.

But Lawless adds that Obama is on the popular side of these issues and does stand to gain from them, particularly if Republicans take up the debate over women's issues in their nominating contest.

"The administration can bunch and bundle all of these initiatives together and say, 'This is what the GOP stands for,' " Lawless said. "And as long as Republicans don't have a nominee, the Democrats will win on this front because Republicans don't have a voice to refute the allegations."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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