JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn to U.S. politics, as both parties have been working to win over female voters amid a flurry of recent activity related to women's issues.
Issues of particular interest to women have been front and center of late. And it may be helping President Obama and fellow Democrats. This was the president Tuesday at his White House news conference.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe that Democrats have a better story to tell to women about how we're going to solidify the middle class and grow this economy, make sure everybody got -- has a fair shot, everybody's doing their fair share, and we got a fair set of rules of the road that everybody has to follow.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats are using a series of recent incidents to help tell that story, including the debate over the original birth control mandate in the president's health care law.
Republicans like New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte argued it would trample the rights of religious groups opposed to birth control.
SEN. KELLY AYOTTE, R-N.H.: This is not a women's rights issue. This is a religious liberty issue. And it can apply to all faiths.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But California Sen. Barbara Boxer and other Democrats countered, the GOP was launching a "war on women."
SEN. BARBARA BOXER, D-Calif.: Women in this country are tired of being treated like a political football by Republicans in Congress, who have tried continually and are continuing to try to take away their benefits, to take away their rights.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The president ultimately altered the birth control mandate to accommodate religious objections. But House Republicans drew fire from women's groups when they arranged for five men to speak against the mandate at a hearing, while barring a young female law student, Sandra Fluke, from testifying in favor.
The issue blew up again when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and prostitute last week. He later apologized, but lost a number of sponsors in the continuing furor.
President Obama, meanwhile, telephoned Fluke to commend her for speaking out. But at Tuesday's news conference, he said women will base their votes on more than any single incident.
BARACK OBAMA: And there are millions of strong women around the country who are going to make their own determination about a whole range of issues. It's not going to be narrowly focused just on contraception. It's not going to be driven by one statement by one radio announcer.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, evidence of fallout appeared in a new poll by the left-leaning group EMILY's List. It found that on women's health issues, voters in eight Senate battleground states now give Democrats an 18-point advantage.
Indeed, in Virginia, a firestorm of criticism and protests prompted Republicans to back away from requiring internal ultrasound testing for women seeking abortions. And some Republicans looked to shift the debate back to friendlier ground.
Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, had this to say on Super Tuesday night.
ANN ROMNEY, wife of Mitt Romney: Do you know what women care about? And this is what I love. Women care about jobs.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JUDY WOODRUFF: Whatever drives women to the polls in November, Democrats hope the events of recent weeks will ultimately work to their benefit.
For a closer look, we are joined by Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus and Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus. She's the founder of Capitol Strategies and a columnist for The Hill newspaper.
And we thank you both for being here.
CHERI JACOBUS, republican strategist: Good to be here. Thank you.
RUTH MARCUS, The Washington Post: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Ruth, how important is the women's vote in a presidential election?
RUTH MARCUS: The women's vote is very important, for the simple fact that women tend to be a majority of the electorate. And so women are stronger voters and they are also stronger Democratic voters than men.
So the president needs to have women by his side, strong women by his side, if he's going to be elected.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Cheri, typically, what issues are more important to women voters than they are to men, or can you say that there's a pattern for women?
CHERI JACOBUS: Well, first of all, women are people and they care a lot about the same things that men do. They care about jobs, they care about the economy.
And Ann Romney was right. I don't think she was trying to change the subject. If you look at some of the polling, Pew Research shows Romney was doing better, slightly better among women in January when put up against Obama, which is pretty significant for a Republican to be able to do that.
That has since shifted, and a lot of that is attributed to the kerfuffle with Rush Limbaugh and the contraception issue, which has been bungled from a P.R. perspective from Republicans. However, it does show that women were starting to pivot slowly towards Obama before that likely due to the economy.
The good news for Republicans, for Mitt Romney, the probable GOP nominee, is that economic issues, jobs really do matter, and he can compete with Obama on that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And before we talk about what's going on in this campaign, Ruth, there has been, since, what, the Reagan era, the 1980s, kind of a structural what we call gender gap between men and women. What has that been all about?
RUTH MARCUS: Right.
Well, it's been about women are sort of -- women are people too and women care about the same issues that men care about. But they may weight them differently. For example, women are a little bit more reluctant -- women voters as a general matter. I'm not doing stereotypes. I'm just talking about polls.
They're a little bit more reluctant to go to war, so they were less supportive of Ronald Reagan. They're a little bit more believers in activist government, more supportive of health care type issues. And so as I said, there is this structural gender gap. And Democrats, when they succeed, can exploit that and build on it.
And I have to say, I know that Cheri's trying to sort of make lemonades from -- lemonade from lemon here, but, boy, I sometimes think watching this debate right now that the Obama campaign has some kind of sleeper agent in the Republican Party that is creating this kerfuffle, because it just can't be good for Republicans.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean the controversy over contraception, birth control and everything.
RUTH MARCUS: Calling Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute.
Mitt Romney, I thought, made a huge mistake -- and I was glad to see my conservative colleague George Will calling him on it -- in being very, very timid in what he said. He said, "I wouldn't have used those words."
Well, what words would you use?
JUDY WOODRUFF: How did this happen this year in this campaign? Because this -- it started out as the Obama administration issuing new regulations about birth control. How did it sort of spin out of control? This is not where Republicans would like it to be right now.
CHERI JACOBUS: Well, it's not where the Republicans would like it to be, but that's because the whole P.R. war has been - you know they've lost at least the first part of the battle.
I don't think Republicans are going to lose on the substance if they can get back on track, when you're talking about religious liberty. Look, you have a lot of women, Republican women who maybe lean pro-choice or some of us have sympathies in both camps. We're not activists for either side and we understand somebody wanting the choice to do what they want with their body.
But when you start saying, well, but we're going to force this on religious institutions to go against something that's important to them or we're going to force somebody else to pay for it, you start losing a lot of people that you might consider to be pro-choice that are kind of silent right now. So it's not a black-and-white issue.
I think it's a bit little risky for Democrats to really want to run on this. But, again, Obama's numbers, particularly among white women, were so poor, and he can't win without them. A huge gender gap in the 2008 election, but that's why they started this whole campaign Republican war on women. It is to close that gap.
And so a lot of this is hyperbole that is being invented by the Democrats.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans say this is all about -- Ruth, all about religious liberty, as we just heard Cheri referring. Democrats say, wait a minute, no, it's about contraception.
How are voters dealing with that?
RUTH MARCUS: Well, it was about religious liberty.
And I thought the administration made a mistake in not drawing its exemption largely -- broadly enough at the start. But, partly, the administration has just stumbled into this terrific situation now, in terms of politics, where it's not just a question of religious liberty. You have Mitt Romney, who says he opposes federal funding for family planning programs. This is a program that was started by George H.W. Bush.
You have clinics closing in Texas, family planning clinics and clinics that offer women's health services, because, God forbid, pardon the pun, they should take money that might trickle somewhere in some theoretical way into providing abortion services.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So it's not just in Washington? This is happening around. . .
RUTH MARCUS: It's not just in Washington.
You have this debate, for example, about the sonogram bill in Virginia where even the conservative governor of Virginia backed off of having the more invasive form of the sonogram required before a woman could have an abortion. And I just think the Republicans do not want to be having this debate, but they keep allowing the Democrats to keep it going at this point.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Are moderate women in the Republican Party, Cheri, weighing in with the party leadership, with the candidates and saying, this is what we think the party should be talking about?
CHERI JACOBUS: Sure, I think moderate women and all women in the party understand what's going on.
A lot of this sudden blip in the women support for Obama that he didn't have before is because of the hyperbole and people kind of misrepresenting the issue overall. I'm confident that that will die down, I think sort of settle where they're supposed to be. And that's where you are going to find that Ann Romney was right about what women really care about.
Women -- if there's a woman who's getting free birth control or free abortion services somewhere, and I don't think they're going to say, well, that's a Republican voter and now she's going to change and be a Democrat because suddenly now people are a little bit upset about the commingling of the funds with regard to what the taxpayers are funding.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there -- well, let me just start -- is there any way that this can be -- that this whole question of birth control, contraception can be discussed that is not a detriment to Republicans?
CHERI JACOBUS: Absolutely.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Can Republicans talk about it in a way that does not turn off many women voters?
CHERI JACOBUS: I think that they can. It was a mistake to have just men -- it was just on the first panel, by the way, not the entire hearing, but the first panel talking about contraception.
They have really blown it on the P.R. front. But that does not mean they're wrong on the substance. So that's where -- as a Republican, that's where I see a silver lining. But I do think, on the P.R. front, temporarily, they've blown it. They can get back on because there's clear evidence that Republicans will -- women will support Republicans, will support Mitt Romney, and it'll be on jobs and the economy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Meantime, what do Democrats say about this, as you go into this election? We're just in March.
RUTH MARCUS: Right.
Well, Democrats want this to keep going. And let me just give you some numbers that explain why. In 2008, President Obama beat John McCain by seven points overall, by 13 points among women. Right now, he's up six points in one of the latest polls against Gov. Romney, but by 18 points against women, and Romney is, not surprisingly, given some of the other candidates, doing the best with women.
And I think one of the particular things. . .
JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean among the Republicans.
RUTH MARCUS: Among Republicans.
And one of the particular things that Democrats want to do is distinguish among women voters. They do best, in theory, among single women. But single women, who are very traditional Democratic voters, do not vote in proportion to their numbers. If this kind of discussion can energize those women to get out and vote, Democrats will have a very good year.
CHERI JACOBUS: I don't think it's likely that women will vote on this issue, particularly -- well, because they think that -- the issue is been misrepresented.
The issue is not that Republicans want to eliminate contraception. A lot of people think that's exactly what they want to do, is eliminate access, and that's not the case.
JUDY WOODRUFF: It's just March. We have got many months, eight months to go.
We thank you both, Cheri Jacobus, Ruth Marcus. Thank you.
CHERI JACOBUS: Thank you.
RUTH MARCUS: Thanks, Judy.