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Presidential Campaigns Keep Focus On Female Voters


Women are certainly front and center in the presidential campaign. Over the past few days, both Mitt Romney and President Obama have released new ads in an effort to court women. This follows the latest presidential debate where work and family issues created some heated discussions onstage and then among voters. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The ad wars are becoming as tit-for-tat as this week's debate. Right off the bat was this from the Romney camp, featuring a former Obama voter.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You know, those ads saying Mitt Romney would ban all abortions and contraception seemed a bit extreme.

LUDDEN: So she says she looked into it and discovered Romney doesn't oppose contraception.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: In fact, he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life.

LUDDEN: A day later, the Obama camp responded. An ad to air soon in the swing state of Virginia has CNN's Anderson Cooper asking Romney this at a Republican primary debate:


ANDERSON COOPER: If Roe v. Wade was overturned, Congress passed a federal ban on all abortions and it came to your desk, would you sign it, yes or no?

MITT ROMNEY: Let me say it: I'd be delighted to sign that bill.

LUDDEN: In Virginia, in the picturesque town of Occoquan, Mary Ann Christensen was having coffee with a friend this morning. She's a Romney supporter and watched Tuesday's debate, but...

MARY ANN CHRISTENSEN: I wasn't paying so much attention to the women, women, women. I was paying attention to the demeanor, and I wasn't really thrilled.

LUDDEN: Christensen thought both President Obama and moderator Candy Crawley were too aggressive in cutting off Romney. But she also didn't like seeing Romney try to compete with Mr. Obama on what he can offer women, as when he said all women should have access to contraception.

CHRISTENSEN: Why are we focusing on this tiny, little bit to try to sway those few women who may or may not even be on contraception? I think we have much greater issues to worry about.

LUDDEN: Namely, she says, the economy and the nation's huge debt. Still, she likes that Romney talked about flex time for his female staffers. A new ad expands on that, featuring a string of women who were Cabinet members when Romney was governor of Massachusetts.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He totally gets working women, especially women who - like myself - had two young kids. I needed flexibility.

LUDDEN: But touting flex time falls flat with undecided voter Linda Caldwell. She owns the coffee house in Occoquan and listened to Tuesday night's debate while working.

LINDA CALDWELL: We all have done that. We work nine to five or eight to seven or whatever we had to knowing we had to do it. That was part of our pay.

LUDDEN: In fact, Romney's comment that he let a female staffer leave early to make dinner for her kids came in for criticism on all sides.

STEPHANIE COONTZ: That might have been progressive 15 or 20 years ago.

LUDDEN: Stephanie Coontz is with the nonpartisan Council on Contemporary Families.

COONTZ: The rise of dual-earner households and the increased participation of men in doing the cooking and cleaning and picking kids up at daycare suggests that this is an outdated assumption.

LUDDEN: The conservative Independent Women's Forum agreed. In a blog post, a policy analyst there also bristled at Romney making a point of hiring women, suggesting it smacks of affirmative action. So, is it even smart for candidates to target women as a voting bloc?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: It's as least as diverse a group as men are, and we don't really talk about the men's vote in the same way we talk about the women's vote.

LUDDEN: Pollster Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center says, yes, many women do care more than men about abortion. But far from uniting them, it's an issue that divides them. As for things like equal pay, workplace equity and flex time...

DIMOCK: It's hard to know whether those kinds of particular issues would really outweigh the big issues of this election, which are jobs and the economy and the overall direction of government.

LUDDEN: Still, whether women like it or not, the candidates are clearly crafting special messages just for them. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.

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