Political 'War On Women' A War For Women's Votes

Audie Cornish talks with Mara Liasson about the latest twist in the contest for the votes of women. Mitt Romney's wife Ann — at the center of a controversy last week over women and work — was overheard on Sunday saying that the flap had been an "early birthday present" and a "defining moment" for her. At the same event, Mitt Romney was overheard offering new details on tax deductions he would scale back, as well as cabinet departments he would scale back or eliminate.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Moving on now to the latest buzz in the presidential election. For weeks now, operatives from both the Romney and Obama campaigns have accused each other of waging a war on women. But what's really going on is a war for women's vote. The battle heated up again last week when Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen questioned Ann Romney's ability to understand the economic concerns of women.

Now, there are two other developments. First, Ann Romney was overheard yesterday making a frank comment about the controversy at a private fundraiser and past statements from Mitt Romney have resurfaced. They cast his views on women and work in a different light.

Here to pull this all together for us is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So we'll get to all those developments in a moment, but first, remind us why Hilary Rosen's comments last week made such a stink in the first place.

LIASSON: Well, the short answer is the gender gap. It's back with a vengeance. Some polls had President Obama 20 points over Romney with women. This is the biggest problem Romney needs to fix. It's what worries Republican strategists the most. It's why Romney moved right away after the primaries wrapped up to work on this. He tried to reverse the Democratic charge that Republicans were waging a war on women by charging that 92 percent of the jobs lost since the president took office were women's jobs.

And, just as that was being fact-checked as highly selective reading of the data, Hilary Rosen, that Democratic operative that you mentioned, made her gaffe, saying Ann Romney couldn't possibly understand the economic anxieties of women because she was a stay-at-home mom and had never worked a day in her life.

That caused a huge furor. Rosen apologized. The president and first lady distanced themselves from their remarks, lots of praise for stay-at-home moms.

CORNISH: So, over the weekend, a piece of video came to light. Mitt Romney, in January, talking about his policy in Massachusetts of making mothers with small children who get welfare get jobs so they could have, quote, "the dignity of work."

MITT ROMNEY: I said, for instance, that even if you have a child two years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, well, that's heartless. And I said, no, no. I'm willing to spend more giving daycare to allow those parents to go back to work. It'll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.

CORNISH: Mara, it seems like Democrats now are hoping to have a field day with that comment.

LIASSON: They certainly are. Democrats say this shows Romney only wants rich women to have the choice to be stay-at-home moms. The real question is, is this having any effect at all on the gender gap? There is a poll since the Hilary Rosen comment. CNN still has the president up with women by 16 points and today's senior administration officials at the White House said that they think that the gender gap is a very durable situation. They don't think comments by Hilary Rosen or Mitt Romney on welfare, for that matter, will do much to change it.

CORNISH: So let's move on to Ann Romney's comments at this private fundraiser. I don't know how you find out comments at a private fundraiser, but what did she have to say?

LIASSON: Well, she was overheard saying this was, quote, "my early birthday present. For someone to criticize me as a mother, that was a really defining moment and I loved it," unquote. She really sounded like a Romney strategist there, reflecting the Romney campaign view that this is a good controversy for them. Ann Romney is a very sympathetic figure, very popular. She's Romney's ambassador to women voters and the Romney campaign views any attack on her, as Hilary Rosen appeared to do, as something that would just backfire and help them with women.

CORNISH: And Mitt was overheard at the same event, right?

LIASSON: Yes. And this is an amazing story. Journalists were standing on the sidewalk outside the backyard of a private estate where this fundraiser was going on and Romney was overheard saying that he would cut or eliminate the Departments of Housing, Education. He would reduce or eliminate the mortgage deduction for second homes, and, while that last one might show him as being willing to make the rich pay more, he'll probably be pressed by the Obama campaign, who already is pushing this theme that he says different things in private than he does in public: Why isn't he willing to talk about them in public? Why isn't he willing to release his tax returns? What else is he hiding?

CORNISH: All right. Looking forward to the next chapter. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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