- Associated Press - Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mitt Romney is starting to hone his appeal to female voters, acutely aware as he turns to the general election that he must narrow President Obama’s commanding lead among this critical constituency.

None too soon, say many Republican activists. They expect Mr. Romney, as well as his popular wife, Ann, to make an explicit pitch to female voters on the economy and jobs, their top issues.

The eventual nominee “needs to start recognizing the power that women voters have,” said Rae Lynne Chornenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women.

Mr. Romney, on pace to clinch the nomination in June, if not earlier, acknowledges that the GOP faces a historical challenge in closing the advantage Democrats have with women. Like Mr. Obama, he sees pocketbook issues as the key to winning them.

“We have work to do to make sure we take our message to the women of America, so they understand how we’re going to get good jobs and we’re going to have a bright economic future for them and for their kids,” Mr. Romney said this past week in Middleton, Wis.

By Friday, Mr. Obama was making the same argument at the White House, where he hosted a conference on women and the economy. He presented a full review of the administration’s achievements on equal pay and workplace flexibility as new unemployment numbers showed an uptick in job creation.

“When we talk about these issues that primarily impact women, we’ve got to realize they are not just women’s issues. They are family issues, they are economic issues, they are growth issues, they are issues about American competitiveness,” said Mr. Obama, using his office to cast himself as a defender of women. His Democratic allies are putting it more bluntly, accusing Republicans of waging a “war against women.”

Almost daily, the nation’s political discourse features some echo of this battle for women’s votes, whether from members of the House and Senate, the Democratic and Republican national committees or the presidential candidates.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama called for women to be accepted as members to the all-male Augusta National, home of the Masters golf tournament. Mr. Romney quickly followed his lead.

But the Republican’s challenge is stark.

Mr. Romney must overcome history, political math and the missteps of a party that picked a fight over one provision of Mr. Obama’s health care law and ended up on the defensive over access to birth control. Mr. Romney also has work to do with female voters after inconsistencies or misstatements on issues such as abortion and the future of Planned Parenthood.

Republicans have faced a “gender gap” since 1980, with women generally favoring Democratic candidates. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that gap lifts Mr. Obama to a lead across a dozen crucial states. The poll showed women favor Mr. Obama by 18 percentage points while men split about evenly between the two candidates. Taken together, that means women boost Mr. Obama to a 51 to 42 percent lead over Mr. Romney in those states.