Debate Moves Women to Fore in Race for the White House
Published: October 17, 2012
WASHINGTON — President Obama charged that Mitt Romney’s policies are economically threatening to women, as the candidates in their second presidential debate on Tuesday night clashed repeatedly over who would best serve the interests of the country’s largest and most critical constituency.
James Hill for The New York Times
With some polls offering sporadic evidence that Mr. Romney is gaining support among women in the final weeks of the campaign, the president seized every opportunity during their face-off at Hofstra University on Long Island to assert that Mr. Romney, the Republican candidate, would eliminate financing for women’s health services, block access to contraceptives, oppose equal pay and undermine the economic recovery for families in which women are the breadwinners.
“This is not just a women’s issue,” Mr. Obama said during an exchange about equal pay for women in the workplace. “This is a family issue. This is a middle-class issue. And that’s why we’ve got to fight for it.”
Mr. Romney sought to defend his policies as better for women, denying Mr. Obama’s accusations about contraception and insisting that his record as Massachusetts governor is one of inclusion and equality. Even as the debate concluded, Mr. Romney’s campaign released a television ad stressing that he does not oppose contraception and believes abortion should be legal in some cases.
“Turns out, Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all,” a woman in the ad says. “In fact, he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life.”
But Mr. Romney’s rambling description of his efforts to hire women into his administration as governor of Massachusetts became an instant Internet sensation when he said he had “whole binders full of women” that he considered for jobs in his cabinet and agencies.
“I said, ‘Well, gosh, can’t we find some women that are also qualified?’ ” Mr. Romney said during the debate. “And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet.”
The “binders full” comment was a hit on Twitter, quickly becoming a “meme” that generated a mocking Tumblr page and prompted a Democratic group to buy up the Web site www.bindersfulofwomen.com. The group, American Bridge 21st Century, used it to list actions by Mr. Romney that the group said were contrary to women’s interests.
The appeals to women came during a debate in which Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney also sought to energize their bases. Mr. Obama, in particular, delivered an aggressive performance that advisers hope will give his core supporters fresh evidence that the president is ready to fight for a second term.
Mr. Romney pressed his case for tax cuts, a favorite topic of conservatives, and remained critical of the administration’s account of the deadly attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an issue that Republicans believe gives them an advantage. And Mr. Romney repeated his campaign mantra that the country cannot afford another four years like the ones Mr. Obama has presided over.
But there was no mistaking the focus by the candidates on women. That focus has increased dramatically in the final weeks of the campaign, as the overall race has tightened nationally and in many of the most important battleground states. Mr. Obama has long maintained a double-digit lead among women in most surveys, helping him to overcome a deficit among men.
A Gallup poll this week suggested that Mr. Obama’s advantage had evaporated, though other surveys — and Mr. Obama’s top strategists — disputed that finding.
As the debate on Tuesday made clear, neither campaign is taking the support of women for granted. Mr. Obama, in particular, seemed eager to make the case for his policies — and to criticize Mr. Romney’s — after having been criticized by many high-profile women for not doing so in the debate two weeks ago in Denver.
The president went out of his way several times to mention Mr. Romney’s pledge to eliminate financing for Planned Parenthood. Mr. Obama argued that that would not only affect women’s health services but would be an economic burden on families during tough times.
“Millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for not just contraceptive care,” Mr. Obama said. “They rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country.”
On the question of contraception, Mr. Obama said that Mr. Romney would allow employers to decide whether to provide contraception coverage in their insurance plans, an option foreclosed by the president’s health care law. Mr. Romney denied that.
“I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not, and I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not,” Mr. Romney said, using time from another question to try to rebut the president. “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.”
Mr. Romney sought to connect the interests of women to the broader issue of the economy’s sluggish recovery, suggesting repeatedly that he could do better for struggling families — and especially women — if he is in the White House.
“There are three and a half million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office,” Mr. Romney said. “We don’t have to live like this. We can get this economy going again.”
But it was a question about equal pay for women that elicited the most memorable exchange of the debate. Mr. Obama focused on passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — the first bill he signed as president — which makes it easier for women to sue if they suspect they are not being paid fairly.
“So we fixed that,” Mr. Obama said. “And that’s an example of the kind of advocacy that we need because women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family.”
When it was Mr. Romney’s turn, he described the efforts he made after being elected governor to make sure that women were well represented in his administration. He said the early recommendations were mostly men, and that he pushed harder to search for qualified women to serve.
That led to the “binders full” comment and to a description of his willingness to be flexible about the hours that his chief of staff — a woman named Beth Myers, who is now a top adviser to his campaign — worked while raising children.
“She said, I can’t be here until 7 or 8 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5, so I can be there for — making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school,” Mr. Romney explained. “So we said, fine, let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.