Mitt Romney’s campaign undermined an effort to close the gender gap Wednesday when his advisers fumbled a question about his support for equal-pay legislation.
Fresh off of a great day for Romney on Tuesday, when his main rival for the GOP nomination dropped out, his campaign organized a conference call with reporters to attack President Obama on taxes and accuse his policies of being destructive to women in the workplace.
“Well get back to you on that,” an adviser said.
Romney’s surrogates also stumbled when asked to provide any specific examples of Obama policies to back up claims his campaign has been hounding since Tuesday: That Obama has turned back the clock for women in America by 20 years.
The campaign cited statistics showing that 9 out of 10 job losses under Obama have been females, but couldn’t point to specific things Romney would have done differently to remedy the disparity. Instead, they explained vaguely that Obama’s policies have disproportionately hurt women.
Romney’s media team kicked into action, telling reporters by email that Romney supports equal pay and later that he wouldn’t seek to repeal the law. The campaign also circulated news clips about Obama aides complaining of a hostile workplace and colorful graphics outlining statistics about female job losses during Obama’s first term.
“Of course Mitt Romney supports pay equity for women,” said Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. “The real question is whether President Obama supports jobs for women.”
But by that time, the damage was done.
Democrats pounced, arguing that Romney and Republicans had exposed the hollowness of their arguments that Democrats are more harmful to women than Republicans. Barely one hour after the conference call had started, Obama’s campaign issued a statement not from a spokesman, but from Ledbetter herself.
“If he is truly concerned about women in this economy, he wouldn’t have to take time to ‘think’ about whether he supports the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act," she said.
The Ledbetter Act allows the 180-day statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit to reset with each new discriminatory paycheck, making it easier for those who claim equal-pay violations to seek remedy.
The Romney team’s hesitation to come out in support of the legislation isn’t surprising, as it faced heavy Republican opposition in Congress in 2009. Republicans argued a provision of the lawsuit would lead to an explosion of frivolous lawsuits. Only three House Republicans and five Senate Republicans voted for the measure, and Sen. John McCainJohn McCainEx-Bush aide Nicolle Wallace to host MSNBC show Meghan McCain: Obama 'a dirty capitalist like the rest of us' Top commander: Don't bet on China reining in North Korea MORE (R-Ariz.), the 2008 GOP nominee, opposed it.
It also isn’t unusual for surrogates and spokesmen to decline to give an immediate response to specific questions.
But the incident appeared to catch Romney’s campaign off guard on an issue affecting women in the workplace just as they were ramping up their attacks on Obama on the same issue.
Republicans have been working feverishly over the past few weeks to reverse the damage that has been done to the party’s standing with women. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday showed Obama running almost 20 points ahead of Romney among women, and other recent polls have affirmed that Republicans have big work to do to win back females voters.
Romney has been plagued by similar incidents: Good news for the campaign is often followed by a major gaffe that takes over the headlines for a day or two, undercutting the momentum it was eagerly anticipating.
On the campaign trail Wednesday, Romney didn’t address the Ledbetter Act, but he did jab Obama with broad attacks about the well-being of women. As he stood in front of six female business-owners at a female-owned graphics company in Hartford, Conn., he said Obama hadn’t caused the economic collapse but had made it worse.
"Because it lasted longer, more and more women have lost jobs," Romney said. "His failures have hurt women."
He repeated a claim that thanks to Obama, 92 percent of job losses over the past four years had been women. The nonpartisan fact-checking site PolitiFact called the claim “mostly false,” saying that while the statistic is accurate, blaming Obama administration policies for it was not.
Attuned to the fact that the story was slipping away from them, Romney’s campaign blasted out a statement Wednesday afternoon from Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), a Romney supporter, arguing that women can’t afford four more years with Obama in the White House.
“Barack ObamaBarack ObamaTrump blames Obama for vetting of Flynn Microsoft hires former FTC commissioner Let’s never talk about a government shutdown — ever again MORE talks a good game on women in the economy, but the facts don’t back him up,” she said. “Women in the Obama economy are facing hardships of historical proportions.”
Additional statements from other women who support Romney, including Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersStudy: Rhode Island, Delaware have fastest internet in country At the table: The importance of advocating for ABLE Week ahead in tech: Internet privacy repeal awaits Trump signature MORE (R-Wash.) and Kerry Healey, who served as Romney’s lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, followed.
Democrats responded in turn, noting that in 2009, Bono Mack and McMorris Rodgers both voted against the Ledbetter Act.