Poll finds gender gap propelling Obama over Romney in key battleground states

President Obama is trouncing GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney in 12 battleground states thanks to a double-digit advantage with women. 

Obama leads Romney 51 to 42 percent in the latest USA Today/Gallup poll of 12 swing states that was released Monday. Romney holds a one-point lead among men in the poll, but trails with women by 18 points.

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It’s unlikely that the GOP nominee would be able to win the White House with a gender gap of that magnitude. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suffered a similar gender split in 2008, losing to Obama by one point among men but by 13 points among women. 

The new poll predicts Obama will need to win about half of the electoral votes provided by Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, if he is to secure a second term.

Obama now leads in those states by an average of 9 percentage points, the poll found. 

Democrats have made a play to women voters in the aftermath of the February controversy over contraception, arguing Republicans are waging a “war on women” in ads and fundraising pitches.

The GOP candidates were drawn into the fight over contraception after Republicans accused the president of undermining religious liberty by forcing faith-affiliated institutions to cover the costs of their employees' birth control. The administration made an “accommodation” that allows insurers to provide the coverage directly, but Republicans blasted it as sleight of hand and pushed for a faith-based exemption.

In December, before the contraception issue exploded onto the political scene, Obama trailed Romney 48 percent to 43 percent in the same USA Today/Gallup poll, and trailed Newt Gingrich 48 percent to 45 percent.

While Republicans sought to portray the contraception debate as a matter of religious freedom, Democrats painted the issue as a women’s health matter. Democrats were quick to pounce after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) hosted an all-male panel on the birth-control issue.

Democrats then held their own hearing to allow Sandra Fluke, a female law student whom Issa had excluded from his hearing, to give her testimony about the contraception mandate. 

Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” on the air following the hearing, sparking a national controversy that spurred advertisers to leave his show. Obama later called Fluke to express his support, and weighed in on the remarks by invoking his own daughters, while Romney said Limbaugh’s remarks were “not the language I would’ve used.” 

Republicans are confident that Romney can close the gap with women voters as the general election focus shifts back to the economy.  

At a campaign event in Wisconsin on Monday, Romney blamed the press for trying to “distract” voters with peripheral issues, while acknowledging that Republicans have to do a better job of taking their economic message to women.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has been increasingly targeting its economic message at women.

“Democrats have a better story to tell to women about how we're going to solidify the middle class and grow this economy, make sure everybody has a fair shot,” Obama said last month. 

Some are speculating that the Romney campaign will give Ann Romney, the wife of the GOP front-runner, a larger role on the trail, and she shot back at the president’s remarks.

"Do you know what women care about? Women care about jobs," Ann Romney said. "They're angry, and they're furious about the entitlement debt that we're leaving for our children."

Planned Parenthood has been another source of controversy for women's health issues.

In February, the world’s largest breast cancer charity, The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, said it would cut funding for the group, but reversed course after a massive outcry from supporters.

Planned Parenthood predominantly provides family planning services, but is a frequent target of conservatives for providing abortion services and receiving federal funding.

Romney has said that if elected, he would seek to end federal funding for the group. On Sunday, Obama stood behind the group in a video message to supporters, ripping Republicans for “playing politics” with women’s health.

“For you and for most Americans, protecting women's health is a mission that stands above politics, and yet over the past year you've had to stand up to politicians who wanted to deny millions of women the care they rely on and inject themselves into decisions that are best made between a women and her doctor," Obama said in a video posted to Planned Parenthood Action Fund's YouTube channel. "Let's be clear here — women are not an interest group."

—This story was originally posted at 7:47 a.m. and has been updated.