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Drift away from GOP by women voters may give Obama advantage in fall

By Thomas Fitzgerald, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

PHILADELPHIA — Hard-won Republican gains among female voters have all but evaporated amid a noisy national debate over reproductive health. That opinion shift — if it lasts — could hand a big advantage to President Barack Obama and the Democrats in the fall, political analysts say.

In the 2010 midterm elections, the GOP regained control of the House in large part because its candidates ran evenly with Democrats among women, an exception to the “gender gap” pattern that has been a standard feature of U.S. politics for more than three decades.

Yet recent polls have found damage to the Republican brand and its candidates from a detour into classic cultural-war fights about contraception — who should have it and who should pay for it — and proper sexual behavior for women.

Most prominently, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh attacked as a “slut” and “round-heeled” a Georgetown University law student who testified to a House committee in favor of a federal requirement that employers, even religious-affiliated ones, cover birth control in their health-insurance plans.

“Unless Republicans start turning the debate from cultural issues and back to the bread-and-butter issues, they’re doing real damage to themselves among moderate and independent women,” said Donna Gentile O’Donnell, a Democratic strategist from Philadelphia. ” … It’s overreach, from the party of individual freedom.”

Several recent polls have shown that Obama’s approval rating has jumped among women since December, from 43 percent to 53 percent, while remaining flat among men, and that the president would enjoy substantial leads among women over either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum in hypothetical matchups.

In a national Pew Research Center poll last month, for instance, Obama led Romney by 8 percentage points and Santorum by 10 percentage points overall. Obama, however, was carrying female voters by a lopsided 59 percent to 38 percent over either Republican.

It’s unclear how lasting the gap will be in 2012 or how much of it is attributable to the contraception fight, but Democrats from the White House on down are trying to stoke outrage and raise money over the issue. Republican presidential candidates have turned their focus back to the economy.

“It’s an issue of substance but not a decisive one for most swing voters,” said Bruce Haynes, a Washington-based GOP consultant who is a partner in Purple Strategies. “It’s a flash point, but it doesn’t hold a candle to questions over jobs or whether we’re going to go to war with Iran or affording college for your kids.”

A gender gap has been present in every presidential election since 1980, with a greater proportion of women than men preferring the Democrat; the difference has averaged about 7 percentage points. Experts say that probably relates to ingrained differences of opinion between the sexes about the role of government, with women over time more consistently supportive of safety-net programs.

Women are a crucial voting bloc for Obama, particularly in suburban areas of cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit, Denver and Cleveland. His re-election strategy is predicated on energizing and winning female voters.

Analysts say Obama would not be in the White House today if he had not beaten Republican Sen. John McCain by 13 points among women four years ago. Women preferred Obama over John McCain 56 percent to 43 percent. Exit polls showed that independent women were responsible for most of the margin.

Now, the contraception controversy “has really closed the intensity gap with unmarried (Democratic-leaning) women in particular, who weren’t as likely to turn out,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “Republicans have done what, honestly, we couldn’t have done better if we’d designed a strategy ourselves.”

In the last several months, a series of social-issue controversies has erupted, roiling the presidential race.

There have been continuing battles over funding of Planned Parenthood, as well as over a new law in Virginia that requires a woman to have an ultrasound — originally, as proposed by Republican lawmakers, a vaginally invasive one — of their developing fetus before having an abortion.

But the biggest confrontation arose over the Obama administration’s requirement that employers — even such ones as universities affiliated with religions opposed to contraception as a matter of faith — provide health-insurance coverage of birth control. Catholic bishops objected, and the GOP accused the administration of waging war on religious freedom.

At the same time, Santorum, an ardent social conservative, was rising in the polls to challenge Romney. Santorum had to explain past statements that he opposed contraception because it allows consequence-free sex, and that women should not work outside the home. He also said women shouldn’t be allowed in combat.

Limbaugh threw accelerant on the fire after the law student, Sandra Fluke, testified that it was wrong for Georgetown to deny her birth-control coverage solely because it is a Catholic institution.

The radio-show host called Fluke a “slut” who wanted taxpayers to be her “pimps,” paying her to have unlimited sex. Limbaugh said on the air that Fluke should post videos on the Internet showing her having sex.

Obama jumped into the fray, calling Fluke to express support for her and to congratulate her for standing up for her beliefs. He threw the GOP on the defensive.

Limbaugh apologized and the Republican presidential candidates danced when pushed to respond to the controversy, seeming unwilling to alienate a powerful figure in the conservative movement.

Santorum said Limbaugh was an “entertainer” who was “being absurd.” After avoiding questions for a few days, Romney told reporters along a rope line at a rally in Cleveland that Limbaugh’s comments were “not the language I would have used.”

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