POWELL, Ohio — Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney declared Saturday that "women need our help" as he promised to promote women-led businesses should he defeat President Barack Obama in November's election.
The appeal came as the former Massachusetts governor tried to shrug off a series of unwanted distractions before the Republican convention opens Monday in Florida.
"Just a word to the women entrepreneurs out there, if we become president and vice president, we want to speak to you, we want to help you," Romney said with running mate Paul Ryan at his side during an outdoor rally that drew an estimated 5,000 people to the Columbus area. "Women in this country are more likely to start businesses than men. Women need our help."
While the comments were focused on women entrepreneurs, the promise comes as Romney tries to close Obama's perceived advantage among female voters. Women's issues have played a prominent role in the presidential contest. Republicans faced difficult questions this week about the party's position on abortion after a Missouri Senate candidate suggested that women's bodies can prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape."
Both parties hope to use their conventions to appeal to female voters. The Republican convention, in particular, will feature high-profile women such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. Planners also shifted the speaking slot for Romney's wife, Ann, to ensure network television coverage of her speech.
Romney's comments about wanting to help businesswoman came less than 24 hours after he raised the discredited rumor that Obama wasn't born in the United States. The remark, and Romney's efforts to explain it, overshadowed his economic message as he campaigned near his Michigan birthplace on Friday.
Romney did not repeat the remark on Saturday, but instead assailed the Democratic incumbent for failing to deliver on his campaign promises.
"I can almost read his speech now. It'll be filled with promises and tell people how wonderful things are," Romney said of the speech Obama will give at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina next month. "It is not his words people have to listen to. It's his action and his record. And if they look at that, they'll take him out of the office and put people into the office who'll actually get America going again."
At the same time, Obama used his weekend radio and Internet address and a new TV ad to highlight Romney's plans for the Medicare health program for seniors.
Obama doesn't mention his Republican challenger in the radio address but says the Medicare program is about keeping promises to millions of seniors who have put in a lifetime of hard work.
His new 30-second TV ad says Romney "would break that promise" and replace the current Medicare system with a voucher program that wouldn't keep up with costs.
"Insurance companies could just keep raising rates," says the new ad, which was airing in Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams called the ad "another false attack from a desperate president." Williams said Romney is the one who would reverse billions of dollars in cuts to Medicare by Obama and protect the program for current beneficiaries and future retirees.
Romney's Ohio rally was expected to be his final public appearance before the Republican National Convention opens Monday in Tampa, Fla., where the former Massachusetts governor will formally accept the presidential nomination.
While GOP officials suggest the momentum is on their side heading into the crucial period, Romney and his party have faced tough questions in recent weeks on Medicare and abortion.
Now his joking reference to the president's birth certificate links him to the so-called birther movement and a wing of his party — a combined 25 percent in an April Pew Research Center poll — that says it either isn't sure or doesn't believe Obama was born in the U.S.
Romney caused another stir earlier in the week by declaring that big business was "doing fine" in the current economy in part because companies get advantages from offshore tax havens.
Still, polls suggest the presidential contest is essentially a tossup as Obama struggles under the weight of a weak economy.
The president's re-election campaign has pushed voter attention away from the economy in recent weeks, particularly after Romney introduced Ryan as his running mate. Ryan is the author of a controversial budget plan that would transform Medicare into a voucher-like system for future retirees.
Outside the Ohio rally, protesters heckled the presumptive GOP ticket about its plans for seniors' health care.
Speaking before Romney, Ryan said one in six Americans lives in poverty. He said the country is done being fooled by Obama's promises to change Washington.
Democrats also have seized on Missouri Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin's comment about "legitimate rape."
The congressman announced Friday that he would not leave the Senate contest despite overwhelming pressure from Romney and top Republican officials.
Romney made the birth certificate remark at a large outdoor rally in Michigan, where he grew up and where his father, George, served as governor. He told supporters that he and his wife, Ann, had been born at nearby hospitals.
"No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised," Romney said.
The crowd of more than 7,000 responded with hearty laughter.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt swiftly denounced the remark, saying Romney "embraced the most strident voices in his party instead of standing up to them."
Romney later denied that the remark was directed at the president.
"No, no, not a swipe," Romney told CBS News. "I've said throughout the campaign and before, there's no question about where he was born. He was born in the U.S. This was fun about us and coming home. And humor, you know — we've got to have a little humor in a campaign."
The authenticity of Obama's birth certificate has been questioned by Republican critics who insist he is not a "natural-born citizen" as required by the Constitution. Obama released a long-form version of his birth certificate last year as proof that he was born in Hawaii in 1961.
But conservative questions have lingered. And Romney has declined to condemn such questions, particularly from prominent donor Donald Trump.
The Obama campaign released a web video Friday night featuring Romney's remark and declaring that "America doesn't need a birther-in-chief." Democrats intend to keep the pressure on as the Republican convention gets under way.
Obama was spending the weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, as Republicans began arriving in Tampa for their convention. But Democrats were planning to counter Romney's message throughout the week.
Reaching out to young voters, a key component of his 2008 election, Obama scheduled stops Tuesday and Wednesday in the college towns of Ames, Iowa; Fort Collins, Colo.; and Charlottesville, Va.
Vice President Joe Biden canceled plans to appear in Tampa on Monday because of Tropical Storm Isaac, but was scheduled to be in Orlando and St. Augustine, Fla., on Tuesday.
After Ryan gives his convention address on Wednesday night, first lady Michelle Obama is set to appear on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman."
The high-profile events are paired with a number of smaller gatherings around the country by Democrats aiming to attract female voters and a bus tour with party activists in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Obama campaign deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said the president's team was "not going to cede four days of this campaign just because of a party convention."
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.