Mitt Romney moved Wednesday to confront one of his most vexing general election problems how to narrow the gender gap he faces against President Barack Obama but his campaign immediately found itself squeezed between its intensifying efforts to appeal to women and its need to avoid alienating conservatives.
Female voters have emerged as one of Romney's largest vulnerabilities. A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week showed that women preferred Obama to Romney by 19 percentage points, and an earlier Gallup/USA Today poll of voters in 12 key swing states showed Obama leading overall, buoyed by independents and women two critical voting blocs.
Now, in the face of mounting attacks from Democrats and the Obama campaign, Romney is taking steps to address that gender gap head-on. In the past week, his campaign has devised a three-pronged strategy, which it finalized Tuesday night, advisers familiar with the internal discussions said.
They will try to debunk the notion that Romney's policies have hurt women, turn the criticism back on Obama and outline how they believe women have suffered under his administration, and brand those issues in a memorable way.
But the campaign stumbled Wednesday just as it was rolling out its new focus: Top Romney policy aides, questioned on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signed by Obama, which makes it easier for women to sue in equal pay cases, seemed uncertain of how to respond when a reporter asked about Romney's position on it during a campaign conference call.
While the campaign later released a statement saying Romney supports pay equity, the law is opposed by conservatives whom Romney is trying to rally for the general election. The Democrats, meanwhile, seized the opportunity to email press releases citing Ledbetter's "shocked and disappointed" reaction.
As the Romney campaign pivots to the general election, his aides will reintroduce him to voters, warming up his image by emphasizing his role as a devoted father and husband. Romney's wife, Ann, has already made several Web videos that feature her reminiscences, along with gauzy family photos; voters are likely to see more of these.
Ann Romney will also increase her campaign appearances; she has already begun to talk about how women tell her that they care deeply about the economy, where the campaign wants to keep its focus.
Polls showed that as the Republican primary campaign dragged on, Romney began losing support with women, who may have been put off by the nominating contest's focus on social issues like Planned Parenthood, immigration and contraception.
"Women voters are pocketbook voters, and the highest casualties of President Obama's failures on the economy have been among women," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts. "Governor Romney has a good record on women's issues."
On the campaign trail Tuesday and Wednesday, Romney began highlighting how, under Obama, women have suffered disproportionate job losses, repeatedly citing the figure of 92.3 percent, which he said was women's share of all the jobs lost since the president's inauguration in January 2009.
The net number of jobs held by women has in fact fallen by 683,000 since Obama's inauguration, while those held by men have fallen by 57,000. But the statistic is misleading for several reasons. For one, while women have lost many jobs in the past three years, men lost far more jobs during the recession which officially started in December 2007, as men are disproportionately employed in industries sensitive to early swings in the business cycle, like manufacturing and construction.
In the coming days, the Romney campaign plans to lay out more details about the "real" war on women, especially as it relates to Romney's favorite topic jobs and the economy. The issue of energy, for instance, could be used to talk about how rising gas prices will affect soccer moms who need to drop their children at practice.
But the Obama campaign was preparing to make sure voters hear about every conservative stance especially those involving women's issues that Romney took during the GOP primary race. Wednesday, they released a "greatest hits" video featuring some of his oft-repeated comments such as "Planned Parenthood, we're going to get rid of that."