NASHUA - As Republican primary voters went to the polls in Illinois a week ago, Pam Jordan sat in a storefront campaign office here, calling Democratic and independent women on behalf of President Obama’s reelection campaign.
She spoke to women about the president’s health care law. But she found many of them were also angry about attempts to roll back contraception coverage, restrict abortion rights, and cut funding for Planned Parenthood.
“That seems to be a fairly prevalent view with the women who have been willing to speak to me,’’ said Jordan, 46, a Russian history professor, who endured her share of hang-ups and voicemail messages. “They perceive their rights are under threat.’’
Minutes later, Ann Romney took the stage at her husband’s victory party in Schaumburg, Ill. She said the women who have approached her are angry, too, but about a different subject: spending and deficits.
“I’m loving that,’’ she said. “Women are angry, they’re angry about the legacy we’re going to leave our children and their grandchildren, and I’m going to tell them something: I’ve got somebody here that can fix it.’’
Both camps are trying to exploit very different issues as they stake their claim on women, a coveted group of voters whose shift from supporting Democrats in 2008 to Republicans in 2010 helped the GOP take over the House.
The Obama campaign is trying to sell the benefits of the president’s health care law, sensing an opportunity to appeal to women repelled by the Republican focus on social issues.
In a major effort that coincided with the second anniversary of the law Friday, Democrats held woman-to-woman phone banks in battleground states, sent mailers to 1 million women nationwide, and released video testimonials from, among others, a breast cancer survivor and a mother whose daughter was born with a congenital heart defect.
Republicans are responding by trying to keep women focused squarely on the economy, with Romney, the party’s front-runner, deploying his wife as his designated emissary to the opposite sex.
Democrats say Obama must win the women’s vote by a sizable margin, if he has any hope of serving a second term. He won women by 13 points over John McCain in 2008. But in 2010, when Republicans seized control of the House, Democrats lost support from women by 1 point. It was the first time in 37 years that the party did not carry women voters in a national election, according to Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.
“It’s the ultimate battleground,’’ Lake said. “Independent women will be who determines this election.’’
A Washington Post/ABC News poll on March 12 indicated that Obama would beat Romney by 6 points among women voters in a head-to-head matchup, a margin too narrow for Democrats’ comfort. But in a hopeful sign for Obama, the poll showed independent women have moved toward Democrats in recent months.
Six months ago, the GOP held an 11-point advantage among independent women who were asked which party best represents their “personal values.’’ Now, the Democrats have a 5-point edge.
The Obama campaign hopes a vigorous defense of the health care law, which is facing arguments in the Supreme Court this week, will build on that momentum. The law remains broadly unpopular with voters. But polls that Lake has conducted indicate women are less opposed to the law than men and more likely to support it if they know the features that specifically benefit them.
At dozens of phone banks in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and through a new “Nurses for Obama’’ initiative, the Obama campaign is telling women the law guarantees that they cannot be charged more than men for coverage, that insurers cannot charge copays for mammograms and cancer screenings, and that women cannot be denied coverage if they are pregnant or have been victims of domestic violence.
“When you talk about what the Affordable Care Act does, it’s very popular among women,’’ Lake said. “When you talk about it as a political issue, they don’t know what is in it, and they just see it as divisive.’’
Republicans argue that the Obama campaign, by focusing on the health care law before the general election, is trying to neutralize a weakness, not capitalize on a strength.
“It is because they realize they’re vulnerable on it,’’ said Mary Beth Cary, a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. “I think they’re trying to preempt the problem, and I’m not sure calling attention to it is a good idea.’’
“I think the most effective response to the Obama campaign’s massive launch is what Ann Romney is doing,’’ she added. Ann Romney has been articulating women’s anxieties about the economy, moving beyond her traditional role vouching for her husband’s credentials as a father and family man.
“Every single woman here said the economy, the debt, and how big the government is getting,’’ Ann Romney told the local ABC affiliate on Thursday in Milwaukee, describing the concerns she heard from women at Miss Katie’s Diner there.
Asked about the Obama campaign’s charge that Romney’s vow to repeal the health care law will hurt women, Ann Romney did not respond directly, but said, “We’re going to make sure to talk about the economy. We’re going to not get distracted by all the attacks that are coming.’’
The Republican National Committee is fighting the Obama’s campaign’s defense of the health care law by launching a television ad aimed at women in Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
The ad shows a young mother comforting her daughter in a hospital bed, and two female nurses helping an elderly woman with a walker, while a female narrator argues that the health care law has meant “higher costs for patients, higher costs for taxpayers,’’ and “another broken promise by Obama.’’
“We’re not going to out-promise Obama on free health care benefits, so to go the other direction and say, ‘Is this really a legitimate function of the federal government?’ and to talk about pocketbook issues is the answer,’’ Cary said.
At Obama’s Nashua office last Tuesday, however, the 10 volunteers with cellphones pressed to their ears kept the focus on health care.
Mary Welch, 68, a retired high-tech consultant who brought a casserole and spent several hours calling women throughout New Hampshire, said it was important to educate them about the benefits of the law. She dismissed the idea that the law is a political liability for the president.
“I find,’’ she said, “that most people just don’t understand it well enough.’’Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.