WASHINGTON (AP) — Is the 2012 election shaping up to be all about women?
President Barack Obama is working hard to woo this pivotal constituency in his re-election race. His Democratic allies are even accusing the GOP of launching a "war against women" after the Republicans reignited a new national debate over cultural issues, including birth control.
But now the Republicans — including Ann Romney and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski — are striking back with a promise: Their party will win women by focusing on the real No. 1 issue, the economy.
Not that Obama is ready to give up that issue.
"I believe that the Democrats have a better story to tell to women about how we're going to solidify the middle class and grow this economy, make sure everybody has a fair shot, everybody's doing their fair share, and we got a fair set of rules of the road that everybody has to follow," Obama said Tuesday as Republican presidential contenders competed in Super Tuesday primaries.
Hours later, Romney — the wife of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney — answered him.
"Do you know what women care about? Women care about jobs," she declared on national television, as her husband waited nearby to speak. "They're angry, and they're furious about the entitlement debt that we're leaving for our children."
"I'm right along with Ann Romney," Murkowski said on Wednesday. The Alaska Republican has been critical of her party's focus on birth control policy when people remain worried about economic stability. In a telephone interview, Murkowski added: "There is clearly a direction that we can take as Republicans that gives confidence and assurance that we are focused on the issues that matter to women."
Eight months before Election Day, women have become arguably the most sought-after voting group in an election year where the presidency and control of Congress are at stake. Females comprise a majority of voters in a typical presidential election year.
Women are a crucial voting group for Obama, particularly in the suburbs of big cities like Denver and Detroit. He would not be president today had he not beaten Republican John McCain by 13 points among women four years ago. The importance of winning the women's vote may be magnified this year given that the fragile economy may weigh down the support of other groups that supported Obama strongly in 2008, such as Latinos and college-age voters.
Recent polling suggests Obama is gaining among women. An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted last month showed his approval rating had risen 10 percentage points among women since December. The poll also showed that women approve more strongly of the way the president is handling the economy.
For Republicans, conservative women represent a loyal sector of the party's base, and female independents offer an opportunity to eat into Obama's support. Independent women broke for Obama by a 10-point margin four years ago, according to exit polling, while among independent men he managed just a 5-point edge.
Both parties have viewed the furor over Obama's policy on access to contraception as an opportunity to curry favor with women. Republicans protested Obama's mandate that birth control be covered by insurance, even for employers whose faiths forbid contraception. The policy, Republicans insisted, was a violation of the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom, and they forced a vote on it in the Senate. The GOP measure to overturn Obama's policy lost, 51-48, with one Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe, helping Democrats kill it.
Recent exit polls in the GOP nomination contest suggest some groups of women within the GOP are turned off by the focus on social issues. In Ohio, for example, married women broke for Santorum, while unmarried women favored Romney, a marriage gap that did not exist among men. Women who said abortion should be legal in most or all cases broke for Romney, those who thought it should be illegal in most or all cases leaned Santorum.
Democrats called the Senate vote the latest attempt to roll back long-established women's rights. House Republicans, they also pointed out, had barred a young law student from testifying in favor of Obama's policy but allowed five men to testify against it. And then radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh called the woman a "slut" and a "prostitute" for arguing that her school, Georgetown University, should cover her contraception.
Obama made sure reporters knew he had telephoned the young woman, Sandra Fluke, to offer support. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called Limbaugh's remarks "inappropriate." And Limbaugh, losing advertisers, apologized.
The Democrats' pitch — that Republicans were launching a "war on women" was born. Coast to coast, Democrats hawked the theme. Women senators used it to raise money, wives of candidates included it in pleas for support, and surrogates — from Sen. Claire McCaskill's mother to former tennis star Billie Jean King — ran with it.
"Stop the GOP's War on Women!" read an email sent to Democrats by the party's House campaign committee.
The drumbeat has frustrated Republicans, pushed onto the defensive as polls showed a majority of Americans favored the president's contraception policy.
But the notion that Republicans are out to strip women of their rights "is just a lie," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "It's not a war on women. It's an effort to protect religious liberty."
But Ann Romney's rebuttal moves the response further, said veteran GOP pollster Ed Goeas.
Polling, he said, shows that different subgroups of women assess economic questions differently — and that white women in particular respond well to the Republicans' economic message.
"Everybody's responding to this as if women vote as a monolith," Goeas said. "They don't."
Or, suggested Murkowski, they shouldn't.
In the interview, she said she regrets her vote for the GOP amendment to overturn Obama's contraception policy. If she had it to do over again, she would join Snowe in voting against it.
"Women in Alaska are worried about what they're paying for energy costs. They're worried about whether or not they're going to be able to put their kids through college, whether their savings are secure," Murkowski said.
Even Obama acknowledged that female voters are going to want questions answered on the economy.
"I'm not somebody who believes that women are going to be single-issue voters. They never have been," he said.
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.