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For the last two weeks, the Obama and Romney campaigns have been accusing each other of waging a war on women. It's often been a harsh debate. But what's actually happening is a war for women's votes.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama never fails to tell women what he's done for them lately. Here he is at a fundraiser Wednesday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The first bill I signed into law...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Lilly Ledbetter.

OBAMA: Lilly Ledbetter.

A law that says women deserve an equal day's pay for an equal day's work. Our daughters should have the same opportunities as our sons.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: The president, like Democrats before him, has an advantage with women voters. Romney's trying to close the gender gap by using his most powerful and popular surrogate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: I've had the fun of being out with my wife for the last several days on the campaign trail, and she points out that as she talks to women, they tell her that their number one concern is the economy.

LIASSON: Ann Romney is a warm, natural presence on the stump, and she's become Mitt Romney's number one ambassador to women voters. The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish, who has written a new book called "The Real Romney," says Ann Romney is even more than that.

MICAHEL KRANISH: Ann Romney has always been a big asset for Mitt, really to humanize him. He's had trouble connecting with the average voter, really, since he first got in public life. And she has provided a real softening for him and a human touch. I think the way Mitt Romney sees it is that she is a woman and that she will innately understand the needs and concerns of women more than he will.

LIASSON: The Romney campaign was thrilled last week when Ann Romney became the subject of a big, fat misfire from Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HILARY ROSEN: Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life.

LIASSON: The Obama camp was put on the defensive for an attack on a well-liked woman who's raised five boys and struggled with breast cancer and MS. But then, Ann Romney was overheard crowing about the political benefits. It was an early birthday president to be attacked as a mother, Romney said. It was a defining moment, and I loved it. The next day, she had to explain herself on ABC News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS BROADCAST)

ANN ROMNEY: That wasn't how I meant it. It was a birthday gift to me because I love the fact that we're talking about this.

LIASSON: By this, Ann Romney said, she meant the economy. But other Republicans aren't shy about touting the upside of the attack on Mrs. Romney. Republican pollster Linda Divall.

LINDA DIVALL: It was dismissive. It was arrogant. It was unbelievably shocking to hear another woman talk about Ann Romney in such a way, and I think that is something that really registered with women across the country.

LIASSON: Over time, Divall predicts, that will help Romney, but right now, the gender gap looks pretty durable. A CNN poll taken after the controversy shows the president still beating Romney by 16 points with women, a much bigger margin than Romney's advantage with men. But it's very early in the race.

Pollster J. Ann Selzer - who's non-partisan - says Romney has an opening with women, but needs to do more.

J. ANN SELZER: It will only have an effect if it links up to something more substantive. To me, it was a little bit of probably looking at their poll data, seeing that Ann Romney is very popular, but is there substance behind it? Is there a bigger conversation about women's role in the economy?

LIASSON: Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers - a surrogate for the Romney campaign - says yes. That bigger conversation with women is about health care, debt and taxes.

REPRESENTATIVE CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS: When you look at the number of women that are starting businesses at a record pace, they understand regulations and taxes and tax burden. As the Republicans can continue to remind women of why they oppose the policies that have been driven by President Obama, they will look favorably on the Republican approach.

LIASSON: McMorris says Mr. Obama's policies fueled women's swing to the GOP in 2010 - the first time Republicans won the women's vote in 30 years. But since then, women have swung back to the president. While Romney focuses on macro issues like the deficit and jobs - where he is the strongest - the Obama campaign is focusing on micro issues, like contraception, or Romney's promise to get rid of Planned Parenthood. Those issues, says Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, drove women voters away from the Republicans this year.

STEPHANIE CUTTER: The gender gap wasn't created out of nowhere. It was created because they have systematically, over the course of the last year and a half of Mitt Romney running, seen him move away or undermine issues that they care about.

LIASSON: So while Romney figures out the best way to ease the gender gap, the president is continuing to do what he can to maintain it, with frequent events aimed at women.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: And today, we're releasing a report on women and the economy that looks at women's economic security through all stages of life.

LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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