Faced with a sudden erosion of female support in recent opinion polls, President Obama sought Wednesday to bolster his standing by blasting Mitt Romney on abortion rights.
In an interview with ABC News, Obama accused Romney of trying to “cloud” his views.
The president's attack on his rival over the issue of abortion was the culmination of a battery of criticisms on the issue that Team Obama kept up throughout Wednesday.
The apparent purpose is to claw back the support of female voters, which plunged in the wake of Obama's weak performance in last week's first presidential debate.
“This is another example of Governor Romney hiding positions he's been campaigning on for a year and half,” Obama told host Diane Sawyer.
Obama was referring to Romney’s comment in a meeting with the Des Moines Register's editorial board on Tuesday, in which the Republican said: “There's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”
Romney later sought to reassure conservatives and anti-abortion-rights groups that he was solidly with them, saying during a campaign appearance in Ohio that he would be a “pro-life president.”
Obama’s comments were in line with an earlier conference call by his deputy campaign manager, who made it clear the campaign was determined on Wednesday to use Romney’s comments on abortion to blunt any momentum the Republican had with female voters.
Deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter accused Romney of trying to “cynically and dishonestly” hide his views, and insisted that during the Iowa interview “he didn’t tell the truth about his real position on abortion.”
In his own interview on ABC, Obama demurred when asked by Sawyer whether Romney was lying about his position:
“No, I actually think … when it comes to women’s rights to control their own healthcare decisions, you know, what he has been saying is exactly what he believes.”
Romney, he asserted, "thinks that it is appropriate for politicians to inject themselves in those decisions.”
The Romney campaign responded to the president's message.
“On a day when the Obama Administration raised more questions than it answered about whether or not it deliberately misled the American people, President Obama is more focused on making things up about Mitt Romney," Amanda Hennebrg, spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, told The Hill. "As Barack Obama said in 2008, 'if you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.' Four years later, that’s all he has left. The American people deserve more from their president.”
If there was some desperation in the Obama campaign’s efforts, it reflected the importance for the president of wining women’s votes.
Exit polls in the 2008 race found that Obama defeated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by a full 13 percentage points among female voters, dwarfing his 1-point edge among men.
But, on Monday, a poll from the Pew Research Center found Obama leading by a mere 3 points among women. That finding was all the more striking because the same organization had found Obama holding an 18-point edge the previous month.
The reversal in the president’s fortunes is almost certainly traceable to his widely panned performance in the first presidential debate last week.
Some observers have suggested that the lack of prominence given to gender-based issues at the debate might have hastened the crumbling — temporary or otherwise — of the president’s advantage among women.
“Romney had such a strong performance in general, people were willing to give him a second look,” said Democratic strategist Karen Finney, who is also a columnist for The Hill. “Because some of those key issues — ‘war on women’ issues — weren’t part of the conversation, there wasn’t the opportunity for people to hear him talk about that.”
But Michael Dimcock, associate director of research at Pew, told The Hill there wasn’t one specific trait or issue that women identified as the reason for the shift in his organization’s poll. Instead, he said it was based on an “across-the-board” rise in appeal for Romney as a presidential candidate.
“We looked at all the traits, leadership, connecting with people, particular issues like jobs, Medicare and healthcare,” Dimcock said. “But the shift in Romney’s image seemed consistent across all of those issues. One that sort of stood out … was that he connects well with ordinary Americans, which has been his weak spot.”
Cutter said during Wednesday’s conference call with reporters that Romney had always portrayed himself as anti-abortion and was “trying to be that severely conservative candidate that he promised to be” during the GOP primaries.
“[His abortion stance is] bad for his presidential prospects and now he's trying to cover it up,” Cutter said.
Romney's political history would not suggest that he supports wholesale changes to abortion law, but he came under pressure during the GOP primaries to take a harder line. He has promised to support fetal pain legislation, which bans abortion after 20 weeks.
The comments to the Des Moines Register suggest Romney is trying to appeal to centrists as he enters the home stretch of the presidential campaign.
At the same time, Romney sought to reaffirm his anti-abortion-rights credentials during his Ohio campaign appearance on Wednesday.
In Ohio, Romney promised to end public health funding for Planned Parenthood — a group conservatives oppose because it provides abortions — and to bar U.S. foreign aid from funding abortions. Obama’s campaign is trying to mobilize potential voters on the issue of abortion rights.
Finney, who also serves on the national board of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the organization had undertaken a project earlier this year identifying some 336,000 women voters living in battleground states it characterized as potential “Obama defectors.”
Finney said that NARAL was undertaking “micro-targeting” of these women, in the belief that highlighting the differences between Obama and Romney on abortion rights would bring them back to the president’s side.
“They want a person who is pro-choice, period,” Finney said.
But such a gambit, whether from the Obama campaign or its allies, carries dangers of its own, critics say.
“The idea that Democrats are trying to woo women voters based only on issues related to reproduction is insulting,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the right-leaning Independent Women’s Forum. “Sure, there are many women who are ready and willing to play identity politics. But many woman do not want that at all.”
—Elise Viebeck contributed to this story.