GUY RAZ, HOST:
Now, back to our cover story. Two men will now spend the next seven months convincing us to send one of them to the White House. And to get there or to stay there, they'll have to make their strongest case to women.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The numbers don't lie. Women cast 53 percent of the vote. So...
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Every decision made by those of us in public life impacts women just as much as men. In this report - you all have - explains some of what we've done to try to lift up the lives of women and girls in this country.
MITT ROMNEY: The real war on women is being waged by the president's failed economic policies.
RAZ: A poll out this week by ABC and the Washington Post shows President Obama with a 19-point lead over Mitt Romney with women voters. Now, last time around, there were 10 million more women voters than men. And those voters, they backed President Obama over John McCain by a 13-point margin. So for Romney to win this time around, he's got to make a significant dent in that margin. That's our cover story today: the GOP women, and the strategy to win them back.
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RAZ: This week, we asked women in Jackson, Mississippi - older women, younger women, single and married - about who they plan to vote for in November and which party best represents the interests of women. Here's a sample from two Republicans, Donna Mayfield(ph) and Debbie Rankin; and an independent, Holly Smith. This is who they're backing.
DONNA MAYFIELD: Romney.
DEBBIE RANKIN: Lesser of the two evils? Romney.
HOLLY SMITH: Definitely Barack Obama.
RAZ: But ask those same women which party they believe best represents women...
MAYFIELD: Um, probably Obama.
RAZ: The Democratic Party?
RANKIN: Probably the Democrats.
RANKIN: They're much more liberal, and I think that it just what it is.
RAZ: Even though you're a Republican, you think Democrats would represent women's issues better.
RANKIN: Probably so.
SMITH: I don't really like the way the Republican Party is handling the women's issues currently; you know, with the personhood stuff and abortion's back on the table. And I just - I feel like we're past that, you know? I'm a woman; I should have a right to have control over my body. And, you know, I feel like those issues have already been decided with Roe v. Wade, and I feel like they're focusing on the wrong things, and it's really turning me off.
RAZ: And that Republican perception problem is something many GOP leaders are trying to fight. Here's Wyoming congresswoman Cynthia Lummis. She is the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues.
REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS: I am concerned about that perception, Guy, because the Democrats really have taken advantage of those issues in matters such as the Georgetown law student who raised issues, along with the president, about contraception issues. My gosh, those have no place in the 2012 presidential debate when we are $15.5 trillion in debt; when we borrow money from China and Japan to finance our very government. So to make issues like contraception dominate news and people's attention really detracts from the real issues in this campaign, and I think really do hurt Republican candidates.
So I think it's very important that Mitt Romney get right back on track with debt-deficit jobs in the economy and focus on women, particularly independent women in swing states. That's who President Obama has been going after because he knows they're going to decide this election, and that's where Mitt Romney needs to center his attention as well.
RAZ: It's going to be a tough fight, admittedly?
LUMMIS: Oh, admittedly. And never was an election in my lifetime more important than this one. I firmly believe that if we don't get a handle on debt-deficit jobs in the economy right now, that America's ability to recover is in jeopardy.
RAZ: Well, congresswoman Lummis, thank you so much.
LUMMIS: My pleasure, Guy.
RAZ: Now, ever since the 1992 presidential election, more women have voted for the Democrat than the Republican. So GOP strategists believe the key to winning is to narrow the gap. And according to Republican pollster Linda DiVall, the group that could most help Mitt Romney is one she calls Wal-Mart women - women with a high school degree, and a household income under $50,000. Her research shows that these women are most likely to focus on jobs and gas prices.
LINDA DIVALL: They've made some rather significant sacrifices over the last four years. They probably have given up a landline; they shop at Wal-Mart or Costco or Target, clip coupons, take advantage of bargains. They're probably a high school graduate or less, dealing with a lot of stress in terms of whether their husband might lose a job or they, themselves, might lose a job or their benefit. And they are scrambling to try to protect their kids and just stay afloat.
RAZ: And this is a group that you believe Mitt Romney can capture.
DIVALL: I do believe that Governor Romney can be competitive with that group, and has a very strong opportunity to appeal to them once he communicates that he understands their daily concerns and frustrations. I mean, I think the question for them is: Do you want to continue along this path, or do you think that you can do better by making a change for president?
RAZ: What do you make of this notion that there is a perception problem right now with Republicans because of the issue of birth control; because of some legislation that's passed in states controlled by Republican legislatures, dealing with restrictions on abortion and definitions of personhood? I mean, do you think those are going to be a problem for Republicans in the fall - not just the president, but also for congressional Republicans?
DIVALL: Those issues - and some of the positions that Republican candidates and incumbents have taken - do, indeed, create problems because the Republican Party, on the one hand, says: We believe in a limited role for government. And then on the other hand, many Republican male politicians appear to want to dictate what a woman should do with her life. So I think there is a very real problem there.
Having said that, I think Republicans - and the Republican Party in general - has, you know, probably received a rather significant wake-up call to be a little bit more careful with their words. And again, the overwhelming focus is on the economy, and getting America moving back in the right direction. And I think that is where economic policies - and making people feel a little bit optimistic about the future if we adopt the right policies - is the right direction to go.
RAZ: Republican pollster Linda DiVall. Now, at both party conventions this summer, expect to see a lot of women front and center - including, perhaps, Florida's lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll. She's the first African-American elected to statewide office there and now, the highest-ranking woman in elected office who is both black and Republican. But why are women like Jennifer Carroll still so rare in the Republican Party?
LT. GOV. JENNIFER CARROLL: You know, I don't know. Because when you look back at the history of African-Americans, we tend to think conservatively. And when you ask and poll African-American families, they will line up as Republican. And it stuns them when they see that from religious values and moral compass and economics and education, they fall right in line with the conservative principles.
But I think we get so much into the partisanship and the divide and the demonizing of character, and demonizing of a person, that we go away from really understanding the policies and the issues and we go off course, which is unfortunate.
RAZ: How do you think Republicans can do better among women of color? What do they have to start doing?
CARROLL: They have to start saying the message, and telling the facts, with regards to whether it's homeownership, employment, job education, skill set; what were the policies that are the policies of Republicans, and how that has benefited women throughout - whether it's breaking the glass ceiling, creating opportunities for equality in the workplace...
RAZ: That's Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. She's a rising Republican star and the first female lieutenant governor of Florida as well as the first African-American elected to statewide office in Florida. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Jennifer Carroll was the first woman in Florida elected as lieutenant governor. Toni Jennings, who was appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003, was the first woman to hold the position.]Lieutenant Governor, thank you so much.
CARROLL: Thanks, Guy, for having me.
RAZ: By the way, up until 1988, it was Republican presidential nominees who regularly outpolled the Democrats with women. In 1984, Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale with women voters by 12 percentage points. Coming up on the program, rating teachers by test scores, but does it tell us anything about how they teach? That's in a moment on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.