WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney is starting to hone his appeal to female voters, acutely aware as he turns to the general election that he has little choice but to narrow President Barack 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 an explicit pitch to female voters on the economy and jobs, their top issues.
The eventual 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 this past week 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 as new unemployment numbers showed an uptick in job creation.
"When we talk about these issues that primarily impact women, we've got to realize they are not just women's issues. They are family issues, they are economic issues, they are growth issues, they are issues about American competitiveness," said Obama, using his office to cast himself as a defender of women. His Democratic allies are putting it more bluntly, accusing Republicans of waging a "war against women."
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 called 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 plans that cover her birth control. Republicans widely called Limbaugh's comments inappropriate.
On 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. Romney 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.
There's evidence that Romney may have a steeper climb among women than Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP president nominee in 2008, faced.
Washington Post/ABC News polls at roughly the same point in the political calendar show McCain was viewed favorably by 47 percent of women at this time in 2008, while Romney currently stands at 30 percent favorable among women.
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 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 reports what's she's 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."
A few days earlier in Middleton, he was asked how he'd counter the Democrats' narrative on contraception. He prefaced his answer this way: "I wish Ann were here ... to answer that question in particular."
Some Republican activists say they are eager to see Romney show a genuine interest in and understanding of how women have experienced the recession, while also using his wife to rally female voters.
She did just that last month on Super Tuesday, saying: "Do you know what women care about? Women care about jobs. They're angry, and they're furious about the entitlement debt that we're leaving for our children."
The Republican National Committee is providing a model for any direct pitch Romney eventually makes to women.
It has an extensive operation of surrogates and specific talking points that connect the party's commitment to lower taxes and smaller government to the "kitchen table decisions" women make every day: fitting rising gas and college prices into family budgets, for example, or managing health care costs under Obama's new law, or keeping government regulations from whittling the profit margins of the small businesses millions of them own.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of Romney's campaign in Washington state and a leader of the RNC's messaging to women, notes that women split between the parties in the 2010 congressional elections and helped drive her party into the House majority.
Democrats can't let that stand, she has argued, so they're waging a "war against reality."
Some Republican women say Romney's got time to figure out how and whether to make an explicit pitch to women voters.
RNC committeewoman Heidi Smith said he's already doing that with his pitch on the economy. And, she suggested, he should stick with what he knows.
Said Smith, who represents Nevada: "I don't care if he never says a thing about, quote, women's issues. If he doesn't get the economy back together it doesn't make a difference."
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.