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Romney steps up effort to close the gender gap

Mitt Romney’s campaign is intensifying its efforts to narrow the gender gap that President Obama enjoys among female voters.

Republicans are investing considerable hope that Romney’s wife, Ann, can help the presumptive GOP presidential nominee win over more women when she speaks to the Republican National Convention on Tuesday.

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The candidate’s wife is widely regarded as one of his most powerful surrogates. Strategists also argue that her perspective, being more personal than others’, could make her husband appear a warmer and more empathic figure.

“Ann Romney is warm and engaging,” Romney campaign adviser Bay Buchanan told The Hill. “Her speech is very, very important. Women are one of our target audiences, and Republicans are going to make certain that they see we respect their different roles, whether you’re a mother full time, whether you’re a working mom, whether you’re a single mom, whether you’re single.”

Those comments seemed to allude to the furor that erupted back in April when Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney had “never work a day in her life.” Those comments backfired badly and Rosen eventually apologized.

Of late, however, it is Republicans who have been on the defensive on women’s issues, never more so than in the wake of Missouri Senate hopeful Rep. Todd Akin’s (R) comments last week about abortion and “legitimate rape.”

Adding to the concern among the GOP, a poll conducted by Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway earlier this month indicated that women favor Obama over Romney by a 52 to 36 percent margin. According to 2008 exit polls, Obama won female voters 56-43 percent over Republican candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“It’s unfortunate, it’s inexcusable what happened,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said of Akin. “I would prefer it if Todd Akin would step aside. I think it is a distraction in many ways from the big issues of this campaign.”

In an interview aired by “CBS Evening News” on Monday, Romney emphasized his support of abortion rights “being legal in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother.”

McMorris Rodgers is scheduled to speak from the convention stage on Tuesday evening, and is one of a number of Republican women, in addition to Ann Romney, to be given a high-profile role. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and her Oklahoma counterpart, Mary Fallin, also will speak on Tuesday evening, as will Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will deliver prime-time addresses on Wednesday.

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell insisted that Romney has improved in communicating with women on the stump. By way of example, he noted the former Massachusetts governor’s new tendency to refer to hypothetical small-business owners as “she” as often as “he.”

Still, O’Connell added, the succession of female speakers on the Tampa stage could serve a vital role for the Romney campaign.

“If you can’t make the sale completely on your own, it’s important to have people who are trusted,” he said. “It’s also important for Mitt Romney to show that the Republican Party is not just the party of old white men. It’s a party where women and Hispanics play a key role.”

Buchanan acknowledged that the campaign’s thinking ran along similar lines.

Referring to female voters, she said, “you want to make sure they have the sense that they’re welcome, that this is a party that understands and appreciates that they are a critical part of the electorate.”

Buchanan and other Republicans also insisted that some centrist women could be won over by Republican economic arguments. Even if the traditional Democratic advantage among women overall were to be retained, they said, Republicans could narrow the gap, as many women are at least as susceptible as men to the case that Obama’s economic policies have failed.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who served as press secretary on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, admitted that Romney is “a better candidate when he has his wife around him.”

But Lehane also insisted that the Akin flap, earlier furor after conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and the general tendency of female voters to favor Democrats left Romney with a mountain to climb.

“It’s a bit like a Yankees fan going into the bleachers at Fenway Park and trying to persuade the crowd to support the Yankees,” Lehane said with a laugh. “It’s a tough sale.”

Some prominent Republicans, however, take refuge in the fact that, just as Democrats have a built-in advantage among women, so the GOP is consistently favored by men.

As he walked the halls at the convention, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was asked by The Hill why there was such a pronounced gender gap.

“That’s true. I don’t know why Barack Obama does so badly among men,” a smiling Gingrich retorted.