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Romney turns attention to female voters; Will have challenge overcoming GOP's history, missteps on birth control

Mitt Romney is starting to hone his appeal to female voters, acutely aware as he turns to the general election that he needs to narrow President Obama's commanding lead among this critical constituency.

None too soon, say many Republican activists. They expect Romney, as well as his popular wife, Ann, to make a direct pitch to female voters on the economy and jobs, their top issues.

The eventual GOP presidential nominee "needs to start recognizing the power that women voters have," said Rae Lynne Chornenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women.

Romney, on pace to clinch the nomination in June, if not earlier, acknowledges that the GOP faces a historical challenge in closing the advantage Democrats have with women. Like Obama, he sees pocketbook issues as the key to winning them.

"We have work to do to make sure we take our message to the women of America, so they understand how we're going to get good jobs and we're going to have a bright economic future for them and for their kids," Romney said recently in Middleton, Wis.

By Friday, Obama was making the same argument at the White House, where he hosted a conference on women and the economy. He presented a full review of the administration's achievements on equal pay and workplace flexibility.

Almost daily, the nation's political discourse features some echo of this battle for women's votes, whether from members of the House and Senate, the Democratic and Republican national committees or the presidential candidates.

Earlier this spring, the president telephoned Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke to reassure her after radio host Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut." She had testified to congressional Democrats in support of their national health care policy that would compel her school to offer health insurance plans that cover her birth control. Republicans widely called Limbaugh's comments inappropriate.

Thursday, Obama called for women to be accepted as members to the all-male Augusta National, home of the Masters golf tournament. Romney quickly followed his lead.

But the Republican's challenge is stark. Romney must overcome history, political math and the missteps of a party that picked a fight over one provision of Obama's health care law and ended up on the defensive over access to birth control. He also has work to do with female voters after inconsistencies or misstatements on issues such as abortion and the future of Planned Parenthood.

Republicans have faced a "gender gap" since 1980, with women generally favoring Democratic candidates. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that gap lifts Obama to a lead across a dozen crucial states. The poll showed women favor Obama by 18 percentage points while men split about evenly between the two candidates. Taken together, that means women boost Obama to a 51-42 lead over Romney in those states.

Washington Post/ABC News polls show 30 percent of women have a favorable view of Romney.

Romney is convinced that women, like men, will vote chiefly on Obama's stewardship of the nation's finances, so he tried to stay focused on the economy during this year's battle over health insurance coverage for contraception.

But some of his surrogates led the effort to cast the law's mandate for birth control coverage as a violation of religious freedom, widely considered a lost argument that left questions about the GOP's commitment to preserving women's rights.

Romney may have dealt himself trouble with his inconsistent position over the years on abortion and a comment earlier this year that sounded as if he wanted to "get rid of" Planned Parenthood. His campaign later clarified that he was referring to deleting federal funding for the organization, not eliminating it outright.

Then there's the way Romney handles questions about his message to women; conservative Republican women say he has to work do to on that front.

Virtually every time, Romney answers by invoking his wife of 43 years and what she has told him about what women want.

"She reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy, and getting good jobs for their kids and for themselves," Romney told the Newspaper Association of America on Wednesday.

"They are concerned about gasoline prices, the cost of getting to and from work, taking their kids to school or to practice and so forth after school. That is what women care about in this country, and my vision is to get America working again."