It wasn’t just about Mitt. There was a moment in Ann Romney‘s Tuesday night speech which gave that away. In the middle of a riff about how she, and by extension her husband, sympathize with the plight of working class Americans, Romney made a special appeal to women. Times are tough, she said, “and if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men.”
In the convention hall and out on the campaign trail, Ann Romney is vouching for Mitt with women voters. He could use the boost. In a TIME/CNN poll of likely voters released Monday that found close races in Florida and North Carolina, Obama led Romney by 12 points and 10, respectively, among women in those two states. It’s a deficit that has dogged Romney all year, and the problem seems to be getting worse.
Romney wasn’t helped by Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin‘s recent comments that women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” which cast a pall over Republicans’ convention preparations. Akin has since apologized, but his defiant decision to stay in the race after GOP brass pulled their support has kept the issue alive. So too did similar comments from Pennsylvania Senate candidate Tom Smith, who on Monday equated pregnancy out of wedlock to rape.
Countless Republicans have been asked about Akin’s comments, including Romney, who called on Akin to step aside. But the controversy has drawn attention to Republican abortion politics at a time when the party desperately needs to close the gap with women. And it’s not a subject that Romney, who believes abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is in danger, wants to be talking about. “The Democrats try and make this a political issue every four years, but this is a matter in the courts,” Romney told CBS News recently. “It’s been settled for some time in the courts.”
What’s not settled is how Romney’s views square with others in his party. Although every recent Republican presidential nominee has held the same position as Romney on abortion, the official Republican platform states that abortion should be outlawed without exception. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, believes the same thing, and sponsored a bill with Akin in 2011 that initially qualified “forcible rape.” Ryan recently said the phrase was “stock language used for lots of different bills, bills I didn’t offer,” and that he supported its removal.
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The Republican party’s scramble to distance itself from Akin has engendered some resentment among his supporters. “I think the GOP party bosses that are trying to drum him out are creating a bigger split in the party than Todd Akin is,” Missouri delegate John Putnam told Politico. A few Akin campaign stickers have been visible on the convention floor. And Akin’s most prominent defender, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, will address the gathering on Wednesday night.
Huckabee probably won’t mention Akin though. With few exceptions, Republicans in Tampa seem to have sworn an oath of Omerta not to mention him. “I know that the [Democrats like] to talk about a lot of things other than Obama’s economy,” Guy Harrison, executive director of the Nation Republican Congressional Committee, said in a Monday briefing with reporters. “We’re voting on Obama’s economy. Anything that they get on any other issue besides that, they’re just wasting their time.”
Delegates are largely on message, too. “There is no War on Women. It’s a distraction to take it off the economy,” says Carol Del Carlo of Nevada. Akin’s comment “was an unfortunate choice of words,” says Sue Lowden, a former Senate candidate and the vice chair of Maggie’s List, a group that recruits Republican women to run for office. But she insisted the episode wouldn’t reflect poorly on the presidential ticket. “I think that undecided women are going to look at [the candidates] individually.”
Maybe. But it’s hard to sugarcoat Romney’s struggles with women voters. In the end, it’s not just about Mitt.