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Obama, Romney turn focus to women’s issues

Mitt Romney, left, stopped in Chesapeake, Va., and President Obama was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Charles Dharapak/AP (left); Carolyn Kaster/AP

Mitt Romney, left, stopped in Chesapeake, Va., and President Obama was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Both President Obama and Mitt Romney claimed victory a day after their spirited second debate, each vowing on the trail in battleground states to be a champion of issues important to women.

In Mount Vernon, Iowa, on Wednesday, Obama sought to undercut Romney’s claim to be an advocate for women by highlighting social issues. Obama noted the Republican nominee’s pledge to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood; his opposition to abortion, with few exceptions; and his support of the Blunt Amendment, which would allow employers to deny contraception coverage for workers on moral or religious grounds.

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“Governor Romney didn’t want to talk last night about how he wants to end funding for Planned Parenthood,” Obama said at Cornell College. “He didn’t want to talk about it because he can’t sell it.”

In Chesapeake, Va., Romney said Obama has failed women during his first term, pointing to high unemployment and poverty rates. The Republican challenger contended that these economic matters — not social issues — are at the front of women’s minds.

“As I go across the country and ask women, ‘What can I do to help?’ what they speak about day in and day out is, ‘Help me find a good job, or a good job for my spouse. And help my kid. Make sure my children have a bright future, better schools, and better job opportunities,’ ” Romney said. “That’s what the women of America are concerned about, and the answers are coming from us and not from Barack Obama.”

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In answer to a voter’s question about workplace inequalities in the debate at Hofstra University and again on Wednesday, Obama trumpeted his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women to demand equal pay, in the early days of his presidency.

During the debate, Romney stressed his efforts to place women in top government posts when he was governor of Massachusetts.

“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women,” Romney said .

The phrase “binders full of women” became an Internet meme almost instantaneously.

Despite being teased for the awkward phrase, Romney pressed forward Wednesday by deploying the highest ranking woman in his administration, former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey.

“As we took office, our administration actively sought to recruit the best and brightest women the Commonwealth had to offer,” Healey said in a statement. “And Governor Romney wasn’t just checking a box. He sought out our counsel, and he listened to our advice. We didn’t always agree, but we were always respected.”

Finding qualified women for the Romney administration might have been easier if Romney had had senior women partners at Bain Capital to call on — Bob White and other male Bain colleagues helped Romney both with the Olympics and in the governor’s office. But there were no women partners at Bain Capital from 1984, when Romney started the firm, until 2000, a year after he had left for the Olympics.

Today, Bain Capital says it goes out of its way to recruit women, but it still has a long way to go: Only four of 47 of its managing directors in private equity are women.

Meanwhile, the president’s reelection team held a conference call for reporters with Ledbetter and Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, who criticized
Romney as out of touch with women.

“If Romney was truly concerned about women in this economy, he’d take a stand against paycheck discrimination,” Ledbetter said. “Instead, he has remained silent and refused to speak out for equal pay for women and their families. Simply put, Romney doesn’t get it. But President Obama does and knows that when women make less than men for the same work, it threatens the economic security of entire families.”

Late on Tuesday, after the debate, Romney adviser Ed Gillespie told the Huffington Post that Romney opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Act at the time Obama signed it in 2009, but that he would not move to repeal it if elected. Gillespie retracted his statement on Wednesday, saying Romney had not taken a position on the fair pay law.

Wednesday’s wrangling between the Obama and Romney campaigns included competing assertions about which candidate fared better in the second of three debates. Romney was almost universally declared the victor in their first encounter two weeks ago in Denver, but Martin O’Malley, the Democratic governor of Maryland, told CNN that Obama rebounded and “dominated” round two.

“And the crystallizing moment . . . came when President [Obama] turned to Governor Romney and said to him, ‘If a business person presented the sort of sketchy plan that you’ve presented for our economic recovery, or these massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, you wouldn’t invest in that because there aren’t the details to back up the plan,’ ” O’Malley said.

Romney has proposed lower tax rates that would cost the government roughly $5 trillion in revenue over a decade, ­according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, but also has said he would offset the cuts by closing loopholes and curbing tax deductions. Romney has not detailed which loopholes and deductions he would target, an omission that Obama said amounts to a “sketchy deal.”

Prodded by debate moderator Candy Crowley, Romney dismissed the possibility that his numbers might not add up.

“Well, of course they add up,” Romney said.

In an appearance on ­MSNBC on Wednesday, US Senator John Kerry accused Romney of “not being straight with the American people.”

“He’s trying to fake it to the American people because he doesn’t want to tell you about the home mortgage [deduction], he doesn’t want to tell you about the college credit, he doesn’t want to tell you about state and local taxes, so he fakes it,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

But in Ohio, where Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice visited a Cleveland Browns practice, ­Ryan suggested the GOP nominee had improved his debate record to 2-0.

“We saw the president not offer a single idea or lesson learned from the failure of the last four years,” Ryan said during a rally before the football practice.

A CNN/ORC poll gave Obama a slight edge in overall debate performance, 46 percent to 39 percent, but the Romney campaign pointed out that the same survey also showed Romney had won on his core issues: the economy, taxation, and the federal deficit.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers. Bobby Caina Calvan at bobby.calvan@globe.com; Beth Healy at bhealy@globe.com.
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