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Does Mitt Romney have a 'women problem'?

A controversial comment by a Republican about rape and abortion has shone a light on Mitt Romney’s trouble attracting women voters. France24.com asked experts and strategists on both the left and the right to weigh in.

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It was supposed to be all about the economy.

But the 2012 US presidential election took an unexpected turn when Republican congressman Todd Akin, articulating his strict anti-abortion stance, said that in cases of “legitimate rape”, a woman’s body “has ways” of not getting pregnant.

The comments provoked fury on the left and embarrassment on the right, dragging abortion, women’s reproductive rights, and gender issues back into an increasingly nasty campaign battle.

The controversy has shone a harsh light on the Republican party’s struggle to gain the support of women, an electoral reality that could prevent candidate Mitt Romney from getting to the White House; recent polls show President Barack Obama with a 10-point lead over his rival among female voters.

Specifically, the remarks about abortion and rape have forced Romney and running mate Paul Ryan to clarify their positions on the matter, especially since they don’t precisely match up: Romney has said abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest, whereas Ryan has expressed across-the-board opposition, with no exceptions (the same position endorsed by Republicans for the official party platform to be voted on at the convention).

France24.com took a survey of analysts and operatives on both sides of the political divide for their take on the potential impact of Akin’s comment, and women’s issues in general, on the election in November.

Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia Center for Politics and prominent political pundit (non partisan):

The controversy can only increase a large gender gap that, right now, is giving President Obama a slim edge over Mitt Romney. Women back Obama to a greater degree than men back Romney.Akin's indefensible comments make it harder for the GOP to close the gap with women voters. This was poorly timed for the Republicans, and that's the understatement of the election year. Romney has already been struggling with women. Even though he made clear his disagreement with Akin, the controversy will harden gender lines in this election.

Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute:

The economy and jobs remain the most important issue in this election. Women’s reproductive health and abortion issues rank very near the bottom of the list in terms of voters’ concerns. That said, the Obama campaign needs to increase turnout among single women, and it is possible that reproductive health issues could resonate with this group. Unmarried women (includes singles, divorced, and widowed voters) voted 70 percent for Obama in 2008, but they did not turn out in significant numbers in 2010 [midterm elections for Congress]. In a close election you use whatever ammunition you have and the campaign has been trying to use these reproductive health issues to get these women to turn out.

Akin’s remarks are clearly way out of the mainstream which is why so many Republicans are urging him to get out of the race. It is going to fester for awhile.

Darrell West, director of Governance Studies at the left-leaning Brookings Institution:

The more time Republicans spend talking about reproductive issues, the less time they will have to hit Obama on high unemployment. If the debate centers on abortion, it is hard to see Republicans winning. They are alienating the women’s vote and losing support among young people and suburban voters.

Romney is seeking to distance himself from Akin’s abortion comments, but Paul Ryan opposes abortions in cases of rape and incest so it will be hard for Republicans not to get drawn into this debate.

Laura Chapin, Democratic strategist in Colorado:

Abortion wouldn't have been a major issue in the election if Republicans hadn't made it one. They are captive to their socially conservative base .This is a problem for Mitt Romney. Women don't like him anyway, and his flip flops on reproductive rights only widen the gender gap. Women do like Barack Obama, both personally and as president.

John Fluharty, former Newt Gingrich campaign executive and head of the Delaware Republican party:

What Akin said was wrong and absolutely offensive, but Romney and Republican leaders responded in strong fashion. I don’t think it’s going to have any impact in the larger election. As we move into the convention and beyond, you’re going to find that the gap between Obama and Romney in support among women will close. Lots of people are unemployed. People need jobs. That’s what this election is about.

The Obama administration is happy this came along. It lets them take the focus off the economy, so they will try to keep this issue alive as long as they can. But I expect that something will be done or said in or around the Republican convention that puts an end to the whole thing.

Lex Paulson, former Obama campaign organiser:

Romney's core problem is that he's an arguably reasonable guy at the head of an irretrievably unreasonable party. Whatever Akin's "legitimate rape" tells us about the Republican attitude toward women, the more we see of the Tea-Party GOP, the clearer it is that Democrats are the only choice moderate voters have left.
 

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