Romney’s wooing of female vote hits early snag

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With the general election campaign unofficially under way, Mitt Romney’s effort to win back female voters got off to a rocky start Wednesday when his campaign was stumped temporarily over whether he supports the 3-year-old Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Democrats jumped on the incident — which came as Mr. Romney’s domestic policy staffers were attacking President Obama’s jobs record when it comes to female workers — saying it calls into question the former Massachusetts governor’s own commitment to a fair shake for the fairer sex.

The Romney staffers paused when asked what Mr. Romney’s position was on the law, then promised to get back to reporters with an answer. Within an hour, they had it: Mr. Romney would not repeal the law, which was the first legislation Mr. Obama signed in 2009.

The miniflap underscores a critical reality for both campaigns: Women are a majority of the population and an early battleground in this year’s election, and Mr. Obama’s recent success in winning their support has boosted his overall standings in the polls.

“In every presidential election since 1980, there’s been a gender gap where women are far more likely to favor Democrats than men are,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “The margin by which they favor the Democrat is what decides elections.”

Ms. Lawless said now that former Sen. Rick Santorum has dropped out of the race, essentially sealing Mr. Romney as the Republican nominee, it gives Mr. Romney a chance to try to reconnect with female voters. When Mr. Santorum was in the race, she said, the focus on conservative social issues was hurting the entire Republican field.

In that respect, the campaign’s pause over the Lilly Ledbetter law could come back to haunt Mr. Romney. Ms. Lawless said it reminded her of the 2008 campaign, when the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, similarly seemed stumped when asked about his vote against forcing insurance companies that covered male impotence drugs to also cover birth control.

That year, Mr. Obama won 56 percent of women’s votes but just 49 percent of men’s votes.

This year, the president is making a very public push for female voters, including arguing that the Republicans are engaged in a war against women. In an event with businesswomen last week, the president pointed to his signature on the Lilly Ledbetter Act and said there was more to come.

“We’re pushing for legislation to give women more tools to fight pay discrimination. And we’ve encouraged companies to make workplaces more flexible so women don’t have to choose between being a good employee or a good mom,” he said.

The Lilly Ledbetter Act passed on the strength of Democratic votes — just eight Republicans in the House and Senate combined voted for the legislation in 2009.

The law overturned a Supreme Court decision that said those suing for discrimination had 180 days from the first instance of discrimination to file a suit. Under the new law, the 180-day period resets with each new instance of discrimination, meaning women have a bigger time window in which to sue.

According to early evaluations,the law has not made much of a dent in improving women’s pay. Between 2009, when the legislation was signed, and 2010, the pay gap between men and women closed by 0.4 percentage points — about the same pace as in previous years.

A bigger issue going forward is a companion measure, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Mr. Obama addressed in his remarks last week. Senate Republicans blocked the bill during the lame-duck session of Congress in 2010.

It would give women more instances in which they could sue based on pay discrepancies — though Republicans said it would result in the burden being shifted to companies to prove they weren’t discriminating. This would create a legal nightmare for small businesses, the Republicans said.

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