Trying to regain a clear lead among female voters, President Obama and Democrats said Wednesday that Mitt Romney's second debate performance showed the Republican presidential nominee will not stand up for women's rights and mocked him for saying he brought "binders full of women" as job candidates with him when he became Massachusetts governor.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, countered that millions of women have suffered under Mr. Obama's watch, warning that another four years would yield more of the same.
"Why is it there are 3.6 million more women in poverty today than when the president took office?" Mr. Romney said at a rally in Chesapeake, Va. "This president has failed America's women. They've suffered in terms of getting jobs; they've suffered in terms of falling into poverty."
By the time the day was done, the Obama forces had accused Mr. Romney of not appointing enough women to his gubernatorial Cabinet, and the Romney forces had highlighting news reports of Mr. Obama nurturing a "boys' club" environment at the White House that marginalized women.
The back-and-forth began a night earlier in the town hall debate between the two men at Hofstra University in New York. When a voter asked how they would handle pay disparities between men and women, both men attacked, arguing the other has been a failure for women.
It served as clear reminder that both candidates recognize the importance of appealing to female voters.
A September poll from the Pew Research Center showed that Mr. Obama led Mr. Romney by 18 points among women. But that storyline changed dramatically in a later Pew poll — released after Mr. Obama's widely panned first debate performance — that found Mr. Romney had pulled even. A USA Today/Gallup poll released this week also showed that Mr. Romney trailed Mr. Obama by a single percentage point among women in a dozen swing states.
That would be a bad omen for Mr. Obama, who held a 13 percentage-point advantage among women in the 2008 election, according to exit polling. Mr. Obama's 1-point victory among men in 2008 was only the second time in 30 years a Democrat didn't lose the male vote.
"To the extent that President Obama can exploit the gender gap, he has a very good chance of being re-elected. And to the extent that Mitt Romney can mitigate the gap, his electoral prospects are more positive," said professor Jennifer L. Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.
She said Mr. Obama's performance at Tuesday's debate likely "rebuilt any gender gap that might have been lost over the course of the last week and a half."
Over the course of 90 minutes, Mr. Obama reminded voters that the first bill he signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, granted women more time to file pay-discrimination lawsuits.
He also criticized Mr. Romney for refusing to take a stand on that law, accused him of supporting legislation that would have allowed employers not to cover contraception in their health-insurance plans. He also said Romney-backed Republican efforts to stop taxpayer dollars from being spent on Planned Parenthood would hurt women in more ways than one.
Mr. Romney pushed back, arguing that the president mischaracterized his positions. He said his business-friendly stances will make it easier for women to find good jobs and earn more pay.
Mr. Romney also sought to reassure a young woman at the debate that he understood the issue of pay equity, sharing the story of how he brought "binders full of women" with him to his job as Massachusetts governor.
"We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our Cabinet. I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks?' And I brought us whole binders full of — of women," he said.
Mr. Obama ridiculed the comment during a campaign stop in Iowa on Wednesday, saying, "We don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women, ready to learn and teach" right now in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
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