By Sam Baker - 08/15/12 09:00 AM EDT
Rep. Paul Ryan’s record on abortion and contraception could help widen a gender gap that is already hurting Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in several key states.
Abortion-rights supporters — including the Obama campaign — have aggressively attacked Ryan’s (R-Wis.) stance on abortion and other women’s-health issues since Romney announced his selection as running mate this past Saturday. And they say the choice can only hurt Romney’s standing with female voters.
Although abortion-rights advocates say Romney is far from moderate on women’s issues, they believe Ryan’s tenure in the House will make the ticket easier to define.
“Ryan is certainly easier to pin down than Romney,” EMILY’s List spokeswoman Jess McIntosh said.
One of the bills he co-sponsored would define human life as beginning at the moment of fertilization — a far-reaching approach that could limit access to contraception and procedures like in vitro fertilization. It’s similar to the “personhood” approach, which voters in deeply conservative Mississippi rejected last November.
Another would let hospitals decline to perform abortions, based on religious conviction, even if the life of the pregnant woman is at stake.
The Obama campaign made women’s issues a central component of its initial response to Ryan’s selection, alongside his controversial Medicare plan and tax proposals.
“Paul Ryan co-sponsored a bill that would ban many common forms of birth control, including certain birth control pills,” the Obama campaign tweeted on Saturday.
The battle for female voters this year goes well beyond abortion. Democrats have tried to anchor the debate around two other issues: access to contraception and funding for Planned Parenthood.
So far, their strategy seems to be working. President Obama holds an advantage over Romney with female voters in several key swing states, according to recent polls.
Battleground polls conducted last month by Purple Strategies showed Obama with a double-digit lead among female voters in Colorado, Virginia and Ohio. Obama had a seven-point edge with women in Florida — where Ryan’s Medicare plan is also a potential liability.
Polls in Iowa and New Hampshire also put Obama far ahead with women. And groups like EMILY’s List say the Ryan pick could hurt Romney even further.
EMILY’s List released a battleground survey Monday that says women in swing states respond strongly to GOP attacks on Medicare and Medicaid as well as Obama’s healthcare law — specifically the provision making contraception available without a co-pay, which just took effect last month.
Sixty-nine percent of voters in the EMILY’s List survey said Republicans’ healthcare platform is a convincing reason to vote against a Republican candidate for Congress, and 45 percent said it was “very convincing.”
Planned Parenthood Action Fund also jumped on Ryan’s selection, quickly turning around a Web video accusing the Budget Committee chairman of trying to roll back the clock on women’s health.
The ad used now-familiar video of Romney pledging to cut off all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, then noted that Ryan voted in the House to defund the group.
The Romney campaign said the latest round of attacks won’t make any difference in a campaign dominated by the economy. The campaign been courting women and other voting blocs by emphasizing the economic effect on these groups.
“No false, recycled attacks can distract from the fact that President Obama’s four years in office haven’t been kind to women,” campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said. “Hundreds of thousands of women have lost their jobs, poverty among women is highest in nearly two decades and half of recent graduates can’t find a good job. Middle-class families have struggled in the Obama economy, and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have a plan to strengthen the middle class and get our country back on the right track.”
The campaign also noted that Romney — not Ryan — is at the top of the ticket, and said the campaign will reflect Romney's positions.
Picking Ryan immediately helped energize the Republican Party’s conservative base, mostly because of his plans to dramatically reduce the size and role of the federal government. But the selection was also a big win for social conservatives, who have at times been skeptical of Romney’s commitment to their cause.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said Ryan has a “pristine” voting record on abortion rights.
“Pro-life voters are a key demographic and help secure victory in critical elections,” Dannenfelser said in a statement when Ryan was selected. “The addition of a second strong pro-life leader to the ticket energizes the pro-life base — we are thrilled with this pick.”
— This story was updated at 11:30 a.m.