HARTFORD, Conn. — Flanked by about a dozen women on stage in a small graphic arts company here, Mitt Romney did his best to deflect charges by the Obama campaign — growing louder and more intense in recent days — that he is the nominee of a party that's waging a "war on women."
His retort, summarized: I know you are, but what am I?
"The real war on women is begin waged by the president's failed economic policies," Romney declared toward the beginning of his speech, drawing modest applause from the audience.
He went on to cite a slew of statistics aimed at casting the incumbent as a job-killer who's decimated the female workforce. Among the claims: Under Obama's presidency, 92.3 percent of jobs lost belonged to women, and the female unemployment rate has risen from 7 to 8.1 percent. Fact-checkers have cast doubt on the credibility of those numbers — noting that the figures draw from time when George W. Bush was still in office — but Romney showed no signs today that he back down.
Nor did he make any effort to smooth over a campaign flub earlier in the day, when an aide was caught off guard by a reporter asking if the candidate supported the Lilly Ledbetter act, which helps women sue for equal pay. The Obama campaign seized on the moment, blasting outraged emails to press, but Romney declined to take the bai. He simply repeated his economic attack lines, and pivoted to his stump speech.
It's probably safe to say that Romney would rather not spend the first day of the general election arguing over women's issues — which is why he's simply refusing to do it. By attempting to change the subject to women's unemployment, Boston is doubling down on a bet they've been making every day this cycle: that voters in 2012, regardless of gender, care more about their jobs than anything else. The next seven months will see dozens of varied Democratic attack lines and different media fixations. And if recent history has taught us anything, Team Romney will try to turn every one of them into a conversation about the economy.
But the Republican is going to overcome a 20-point gender gap with President Obama, he'll have to make the message of female unemployment stick. And after the campaign stop here, there were signs that the new talking points haven't quite caught on — even among his most adamant, rally-going supporters.
Asked what she thought of Democrats' attacks on Romney's women record, Diane Chiota, of Trumbull, Conn., she kept her spirited defense extremely vague.
"I believe he's always been for women, and protecting women's rights, and protecting women as they should be protected," she said.
Asked if there were any particular issues he's been good on, she demurred: "I can't get specific at this point. I'm just so excited!"
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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