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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Akin Remarks Push Gender Issues to Center Stage


Just days before Mitt Romney formally assumes the leadership of his party, he and his Republican colleagues are once again confronting the party's long-standing difficulty attracting the support of women - a demographic reality that could cost Mr. Romney the White House.

Representative Todd Akin's refusal to step aside in the Missouri Senate race in the wake of his comments about rape and pregnancy has forced gender issues back into the political conversation just as Mr. Romney was hoping to refocus it on his personal story and the nation's struggling economy.

And the Republican Party's decision this week to endorse an anti-abortion plank at its convention - without an exception for rape - raises new questions about whether, and how, Mr. Romney and his running mate, Paul D. Ryan, can close the party's gap in support among women.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Wedn esday, President Obama leads Mr. Romney among women by 10 percentage points, 51 percent to 41 percent.

In the last 24 hours, Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan have all but ignored the broader issues of abortion and gender politics on the trail. The subject did not come up at a joint town-hall-style meeting in New Hampshire on Monday morning, and Mr. Ryan did not bring up the issue at a rally in Roanoke, Va., Wednesday morning.

Mr. Ryan, who co-sponsored a bill with Mr. Akin that aimed to restrict the definition of rape, was pressed on Mr. Akin's comments in a television interview Wednesday morning. Mr. Ryan declared that “rape is rape, and there's no splitting hairs over rape.” He defended his record on abortion but said Mr. Romney would set policy as president.

“I'm proud of my pro-life record. And I stand by my pro-life record in Congress,” Mr. Ryan said on Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV. “It's something I'm proud of. But Mitt Romney i s the top of the ticket and Mitt Romney will be president, and he will set the policy of the Romney administration.”

Democrats have seized on the Akin comments - which have been condemned by Mr. Romney and most Republican leaders - much the way they did when the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called the contraception activist Sandra Fluke “a slut.” Democrats announced on Wednesday that Ms. Fluke would speak at the Democratic convention in Charlotte next month.

The president's team had already been running ads aimed at convincing women that Mr. Romney would undermine abortion rights and cut funding for contraception and women's health services. Now, the Democratic campaign is hoping those messages have even more impact.

In one Obama ad, a woman says: “I've never felt this way before, but it's a scary time to be a woman. Mitt Romney is just so out of touch.”

Emily's List, a campaign group that promotes Democratic women, sought to link a host of House Republicans to Mr. Akin's views. The group singled out 13 House Republicans - including one freshman woman, Vicky Hartzler of Missouri - who are all being challenged by a Democratic woman who favors abortion rights. The 13 Republicans all co-sponsored anti-abortion legislation last year that sought to narrow the exemption for federal funding from rape to “forcible rape.”

“I wish Todd Akin's backwards thinking made him an outlier,” said Emily's List president, Stephanie Schriock. “But the truth is, he's totally in line with today's Republican Party.”

Top aides to Mr. Romney have criticized the abortion ads as inaccurate and misleading, noting that Mr. Romney has always supported keeping abortion legal in cases of rape and incest. But after Mr. Akin's comments and the party's platform actions, it is not clear whether Mr. Romney's campaign plans new efforts to reach out to women.

Republican aides declined to discuss Mr. Akin's situat ion or the party platform, referring questions about Mr. Akin to the public comments Mr. Romney has made in interviews. In a statement issued Tuesday, Mr. Romney called on him to step aside.

“Todd Akin's comments were offensive and wrong, and he should very seriously consider what course would be in the best interest of our country,” Mr. Romney said. “His fellow Missourians urged him to step aside, and I think he should accept their counsel and exit the Senate race.”

Other Republicans, who are keenly aware of the damage that Mr. Akin's comments on rape could do to the party's support among women, have been quick to condemn his choice of words. Representative Jo Ann Emerson, a nine-term Republican from Missouri, came out strongly against her House colleague.

“Todd Akin made a reprehensible, inexcusable and dangerous comment,” she said in a statement. “He was wrong to say what he did about rape, and the ignorance of that view has no place in our party, in our culture or in our country.”

The issue of how to narrow the gender gap was always going to be difficult for Mr. Romney, whose passed up an opportunity to put another woman on his ticket by picking Mr. Ryan, the House budget chairman, as his running mate.

Instead, Republican convention planners are hoping to present a series of leading women as speakers when the convention starts in Tampa, Fla., on Monday. Chief among them is Ann Romney, whose popularity easily exceeds her husband's and who is scheduled to speak on Monday evening.

Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, will each have prominent speaking roles at the convention, officials announced this month.

“They are some of our party's brightest stars, who have governed and led effectively and admirably in their respective roles,” Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said.

Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and the party's 2008 vice-presidential nominee, will not speak at the convention. But in an indication of how little support Mr. Akin has, even among conservatives, Ms. Palin called on Mr. Akin to step aside Tuesday.

“We have to think, well, what's another option? Is a third party another option?” Ms. Palin said on Fox News's “On the Record” program. “If it is, let's go. The status quo has got to go.”

But Mr. Romney's choice of Mr. Ryan has also complicated his campaign's outreach to women by adding Mr. Ryan's record in Congress to the list of positions that Mr. Romney must explain and defend.

In addition to the bill he co-sponsored with Mr. Akin that would have restricted the definition of rape, Mr. Ryan also voted for dozens of bills that sought to oppose or restrict abortion rights, earning him high marks with groups that advocate against abortion.

Now that Mr. Ryan is part of the R epublican ticket, Mr. Romney and his campaign strategists must find a way to incorporate his record on gender issues into the campaign's broader message aimed at women.