* Obama likely stemmed decline in support among women
* Romney stumbles and the "binders" meme is born
* Contraception, pay equity left out of first debate
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Oct 17 With polls suggesting women
voters were shifting their support to Mitt Romney, President
Barack Obama made an aggressive pitch to them on Tuesday that
yielded awkward moments for the Republican and a favorite new
catch phrase on social media.
Obama hit hard on issues like equal pay for women and
contraception and abortion rights in the second debate ahead of
the Nov. 6 presidential election. The topics did not come up in
the first debate on Oct. 3, when Romney outshone the Democratic
Romney has gained ground on Obama in opinion polls since the
first head-to-head and took the lead in many surveys.
Reuters/Ipsos polling data showed the Democrat's support
slipping among women, particularly married women.
Fifty-nine percent of married white women backed Romney for
president, versus only 30.4 percent who picked Obama, according
to data for the week ending Oct. 14. That was a move of around
eight points in Romney's favor since before the first debate.
With strong support among women essential to his hopes of
winning re-election, Obama devoted much of the second debate
toward shoring up their support.
He mentioned the women's health organization Planned
Parenthood five times. He stressed that Romney had promised to
defund the organization, which provides contraception and
abortions, but also basic services like cancer screenings.
Romney hit back by saying that he would help women, and all
Americans, by improving the sputtering economy. But the
Republican offered fewer specifics on women's issues than Obama
and at times seemed to stumble.
"Any ground that Mitt Romney gained over the last week or
week and a half, he lost tonight," said Jennifer Lawless,
director of the Women and Politics Institute at American
"Barack Obama was incredibly strong on appealing to women
and casting doubt on Mitt Romney's statements."
One of the night's most memorable moments came when Romney
was asked how he would ensure pay equity for women. He answered
by recalling how, as governor of Massachusetts, he had been
concerned when all of the applicants for his cabinet were men.
"I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you
help us find folks,' and they brought us whole binders full of
women," Romney said.
Romney's somewhat awkward response lit up social media. The
user name @RomneyBinders got its own Twitter account, and
attracted more than 31,000 followers less than an hour after the
debate ended. The hashtag #bindersfullofwomen was one of the 10
most common on the social media service.
Democrats said Romney's answer seemed to show he had few
women in his inner circle, and the candidate did not directly
address the pay equality issue.
"I don't think he substantively engaged on this matter that
would make a real difference and that is an important issue in
the conversation," said Tara McGuinness, executive director of
the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Romney also talked about how he had offered flexible hours
so his chief of staff could be with her children when they came
home from school.
Romney's comments sounded like "they were from 50 years
ago," said Christine Williams, a nurse practitioner from Shaker
Heights, Ohio, who watched the debate at a viewing party in the
crucial swing state.
In contrast, she said, "When Obama talks about that, it
makes my soul sing."
Romney repeatedly mentioned that millions of women had lost
their jobs in the four years Obama has been president.
"There are 3.5 million more women living in poverty today
than when the president took office," he said.
"What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is
to have a strong economy, so strong that employers are looking
to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce,
and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women the
opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford,"
Obama stressed his support for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay
Act, the first bill he signed into law as president, which
guarantees equal pay for women workers. Romney has declined to
say whether he supports the law.
Analysts said Obama's performance was likely to stop the
loss of support among women voters.
"We'll probably see some movement of women in a more
pro-Obama direction after tonight," said Susan Carroll, senior
scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers
University. "I think some women saw the Obama that they hoped to
see and were disappointed not to see the first debate."
Women in a snap poll by the Democratic Lake Research
Partners picked Obama as the debate winner by 56-34 percent. Men
also gave Obama the victory, but by a narrower 49-43 percent.
Romney strongly disputed an accusation by Obama that he
"feels more comfortable having politicians in Washington decide
the health-care choices that women are making."
He went out of his way to say: "Every women in America
should have access to contraceptives... the president's
statement of my policy is wrong."
Obama scored points by talking about his working mother and
grandmother, and his children. "I've got two daughters and I
want to make sure that they have the same opportunities that
anybody's sons have," he said.