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March 9, 2012 7:17 pm
When a freelance reporter accosted two Democratic congresswomen this week demanding they condemn crude attacks by a comedian on Sarah Palin, they scurried away.
As an episode in America’s endless culture wars, it was small beer, a belated attempt by the right to marshal its forces after a week of attacks on one of the most powerful conservative shock-jocks, Rush Limbaugh.
Since the White House condemned Mr Limbaugh for calling a student advocating insurance coverage for contraception a “slut”, among other epithets, the right has wheeled out a catalogue of sexist slurs from the left.
But while they might have easily established hypocrisy on the left, the Republicans and its candidates for the 2012 election have been badly wounded by the debate over women’s health that welled up in the wake of Mr Limbaugh’s comments.
“The challenge for Republicans will be to try to win some of these women back,” said Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center in Washington.
For all the wild gyrations of the Republican race and the stirrings of a real economic recovery, Mr Obama’s campaign has stressed that the November election will be perilously close for the president.
With the election up for grabs, Mr Obama’s team is focused on women for good reason – in 2008 they turned out to vote in far greater numbers than men.
In head-to-head comparisons with the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, Mr Obama had an eight-point lead in a Pew poll taken in February. But while he trails with male voters, Mr Obama leads Mr Romney by 18 points among women, a huge gender gap also reflected in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last week.
“Women are more open to an activist government than men, more liberal on social issues, except abortion, and more opposed to wars,” says Mr Kohut.
Women have not always supported the Democrats. In 2000, they were divided between George W. Bush and Al Gore, only turning away from the Republican during the Iraq war.
Republicans trounced the Democrats in the 2010 midterm congressional elections by focusing on the poor economy and rising debt. Since then, the debate has strayed, with Rick Santorum running strongly on conservative social issues in his campaign for the Republican nomination, and conservatives in Congress hammering away on abortion and contraception as well.
For his part, Mr Romney had tried to avoid engaging on contraception, saying “it is working just fine” and shouldn’t be tampered with. But any attempt to stand on the sidelines have been swept aside by the political firing squads on partisan cable channels.
The White House had initially been forced on the defensive on the issue, angering the Catholic Church hierarchy by insisting that affiliated charities and hospitals provide insurance that covered contraception.
But Mr Limbaugh’s tirade over three days on his radio show against a student pressing for her university to provide contraception flipped a debate about religious freedom into one about civility and women.
“This is not the 1950s,” said Jen Psaki, a former White House adviser now at the Global Strategy Group in Washington. “I think everyone believes the election will be a debate about the economy but there are some issues like women’s health which raise red flags with people, because the Republicans have shifted so far right.”
Mr Obama has taken advantage of Republican discomfort over Mr Limbaugh, phoning the student and offering to speak at Barnard College, a liberal women’s arts institution in New York.
Ms Palin, who was called a derogatory term by Bill Maher, the comedian who last week donated $1m to a campaign group supporting Mr Obama, said the president was dividing the country “along the lines of gender, income and race”. “It is dirty money [Bill Maher] is providing to Obama’s campaign,” she told Fox News. “I don’t know how the president sleeps at night.”
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