VIENNA, Va. — President Barack Obama has been wearing a pink wristband in recognition of breast cancer awareness month and his challenger, Mitt Romney, donned a pink ribbon on his shirt during a factory stop in Ohio.
The symbolic gestures are part of a determined competition in the campaign's closing weeks for suburban and working women who could help determine the winner in a series of toss-up states.
Women have emerged as the pivotal voting bloc in the aftermath of the second presidential debate, where Obama and Romney sparred over contraceptives and pay inequality and Romney spoke about reviewing "binders full of women" as governor when he sought to diversify his Massachusetts administration.
Some national polls suggest Obama's longstanding edge with female voters is narrowing, prompting both sides to make an all-out blitz for women.
At the heart of the debate, which is playing out in the suburbs of northern Virginia and in several swing states, is this question: What will most motivate women in the 2012 election?
Romney's pitch is heavily focused on economic issues — his campaign contends that the vast majority of women will respond to pocketbook issues like paying for gasoline or groceries, the need for more take-home pay and how the federal debt might affect their children.
Obama has emphasized a mix of economic and social issues, warning that Romney's vow to repeal the Obamacare health law would hurt women and the Republican would fail to protect abortion rights.
Shirley Jackson, an 82-year-old Republican from Vienna, Va., said she continues to support Romney but is worried about how women perceive him. Jackson said she recently facilitated a discussion about the election at her local Red Hat Society meeting and was struck by how many women in the group said they were turned off by Romney's opposition to abortion rights.
"He has lost a tremendous amount of support among women because of this decision," Jackson said.
Democrats say Romney's views on women's health should be a deal-breaker. Melissa Skelton, 41, a stay-at-home mom from Vienna, said women's health has overshadowed other issues for multitudes of women — and would help the president.
"I'd rather live with a president who struggles with the economy but cares about people," she said.
Romney's campaign is mindful that it does not need to win a majority of women because it maintains a healthy lead among men. But campaign officials say they could severely weaken the president's re-election chances by slicing into the 13-point margin Obama had with women voters in 2008 and picking off support in swing states where women form a majority of the electorate.
Obama's team, meanwhile, is trying to take advantage of the president's personal favorability among women and undermine those voters' trust in Romney.
Ads have highlighted Romney's opposition to federal funding for Planned Parenthood and his shifting views on abortion rights, which he supported in Massachusetts but has opposed during his two presidential bids. The Obama ads end with this tagline: "Women need to know the real Mitt Romney." Abortion-themed ads have been on the rise in recent weeks across the political spectrum, more than tripling in the number of occurrences since mid-September, according to Kantar Media Intelligence.
The campaigns are competing for women in several key suburban markets — including northern Virginia, the Denver suburbs, central Florida and Cleveland's suburbs — while simultaneously appealing to unmarried women and those with blue-collar backgrounds who have been more vulnerable to the slow economic recovery. Obama won about 70 percent of unmarried women and carried about 60 percent of suburban women in 2008, setting a high bar for the president's campaign.
The intense effort to reach female voters has grown as national polls have shown cracks in Obama's support among women. Four years ago, Obama and Republican rival John McCain essentially split men in 2008 but polls have shown Romney with a double-digit lead among males this time.
"The big gender gap I'm looking at right now is Obama's male gender gap because those men seem pretty cemented in," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who served as an adviser to Newt Gingrich's presidential bid. "Whereas there's a fair amount of women who remain fluid, either completely undecided or soft in their support for either Obama or Romney."
Romney has sought to distance himself from statements he made on abortion and contraceptives during the Republican primaries while driving home that his economic plan would create jobs for women and their families. Romney's wife, Ann, has been a key surrogate for her husband, vouching for him before female audiences.
In TV ads, Romney offers a moderate image. In one ad, a woman says that Romney "thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life" but says she's "more concerned about the debt our children will be left with." Another spot features women who served under Romney. "He totally gets working women," says Ellen Roy Herzfelder, Romney's former environmental affairs secretary.
Obama reminds voters that the first law he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which prevents restrictions on workers filing lawsuits over pay inequity. Romney has not taken a position on the bill but said he wouldn't repeal it.
At rallies, the president routinely talks about the women in his life: how his grandmother watched men she trained get promoted over her, how education lifted his wife, Michelle, from a modest upbringing and why it wouldn't be fair if his two daughters earned less than their male counterparts when they eventually join the workforce.
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