President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney made reference to “women” 30 times in their second debate, as both candidates sought to win over female voters in the run-up to Election Day.
Contrast that with the paltry attention paid to the other half of the human race: The candidates used the word “men” five times, and three of those were in relation to a question about equal pay for women.
Yet while both candidates’ attention to women in the debate was understandable, their pugilistic behavior seemed inscrutable, as each bore on the other with the type of aggressive posturing that many female voters say they find distasteful.
Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, somewhat aghast, told viewers, “I personally found it ironic that they spent so much time trying to win over the women voters, and one thing women voters don’t like is a bully, and these two men were in each other’s face s… I think a lot of women will react negatively to that.”
The debate often seemed like a classic fable where two men fight over a woman so viciously that she ends up walking away from both.
Charles Krauthammer had a less ancient but even more colorful take on the proceedings, telling Fox News viewers it was one step away from the “Taiwanese parliament, where you get these fantastic fist-fights.”
But while both men seemed to lack the famous intuition of those they were trying to woo, they certainly paid due lip service.
Obama predictably rattled off key points surrounding what are traditionally defined as “women’s issues.”
He accused Romney of wanting to gut funding for Planned Parenthood and suggested, rather incredibly, that Romney has “in some ways … gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy” than former President George W. Bush.
The president also embraced a question about the Lilly Ledbetter equal pay bill for women, pointing out that it was the first bill he signed as president and artfully integrating it into the narrative of the formative role his mother and grandmother played in his life.
For his part, Romney focused on how the economy has affected women, noting that more women were living in poverty today than four years ago, and consistently pointing out that as far as adversity goes, a weak economy is the greatest threat to women today.
On that point, Romney and the public seem to agree. Throughout this cycle, polls have shown women are far more likely to rate the economy and jobs as a more important factor in their vote than issues like abortion. Thus, Romney’s singular focus on the economy as the driving force in women’s election calculus was spot-on, and he didn’t allow himself to drift too far from that domain.
But he did provide a rambling answer on a question about the Lilly Ledbetter Act, failing to even mention Ledbetter by name and instead offering a fairly broad promise to “help women in America get good work by getting a stronger economy and by supporting women in the workforce.”
Obama also frequently framed his discussion of women’s issues around an economic backdrop, though he was less single-minded in doing it.
He said equal pay was important because women are often the breadwinners in a household and called the question over Planned Parenthood funding a “pocketbook issue” that affected women’s economic circumstances.
Once again, though, neither candidate let the economy stray far from his answer, which is perhaps the truest reflection of how they think they can ultimately woo women.
So what will women think of the debate?
It’s not immediately clear. Both CNN and CBS released instant polls of debate reaction following the showdown, and Obama edged Romney in both. Neither network, however, published results based on gender.
One thing, though, is sure. Venus was certainly the star of the solar system Tuesday night. The question is — after a night of bravado and brazen interruptions — how many light-years away Mars proved itself to be.