CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- If President Barack Obama wins this swing-voting state, and a second term as president, voters like Paula Burky will probably be the reason.
"He understands women," said Burky, a Westminster resident who last month decided to vote for Obama.
Both the Democratic president and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, see women – specifically suburbanites from their 30s to their 50s – as critical to victory in Colorado as well as in other hard-fought places like Virginia and Nevada where polls also show close contests. That means this group of voters may also hold the key to winning the White House.
The state of the campaign in the sprawling Denver region – modest neighborhoods and upscale subdivisions near the city give way to retail complexes, industrial parks and front-range ranches at the outskirts – illustrates how the fight is playing out across the nation, and how both candidates are seeking to woo these female voters in different ways.
Obama has stirred passions among Colorado women by stoking fears about abortion rights, spending the past few weeks sharply criticizing Romney in ads for proposing to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and opposing the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
Romney, in turn, has paid for mail and automated calls in Colorado decrying Obama's handling of the sluggish economy's effect on women.
Just over 100 days until the election, polls in Colorado show a close race, though it's unclear how the electorate's psyche will be impacted by last week's shooting massacre at a suburban Denver movie complex and a summer wildfire season that has scorched countless homes and businesses.
For now at least, Obama has had the edge over female voters nationally and he is focusing on a particularly promising subset: college-educated women. Fifty-five percent of college-educated women preferred Obama in a June Associated Press-GfK poll, while 40 percent preferred Romney.
Women with college degrees make up 27 percent of Colorado voters, according to exit polls from the 2008 election, higher than the national average of 23 percent. That puts Colorado in league with other prime Romney-Obama targets, Virginia and New Hampshire.
Burky is among those who have gravitated toward Obama. She and her husband were unemployed for eight months until recently, while their teenage daughter was recovering from cancer. Burky was swayed by Obama's action last spring – opposed by Romney – to make it easier for women to obtain birth control, a move she said has economic repercussions.
"If women are choosing abortion because they are in dire economic straits, I have a moral obligation to vote for the candidate who is going to help them," Burky said.
Jill Wildenburg, an Obama supporter who lives in Englewood, calls the president's focus "huge because if women's reproductive rights are marginalized, then women are marginalized."
To press his argument that he's on the side of women, Obama sponsored a national women's summit last month in Colorado – in Jefferson County – featuring senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and "Desperate Housewives" actress Eva Longoria. The week before he dispatched first lady Michelle Obama to Arapahoe High School in Centennial.
The controversy over the Obama administration's requirement that group health plans to offer no-cost preventive care coverage to women for items including birth control took a local turn on Friday.
A federal judge in Denver issued a preliminary injunction barring penalties against a Colorado-based heating and air conditioning business whose health coverage for employees doesn't cover birth control. Hercules Industries Inc. is run by a family whose Roman Catholic beliefs condemn contraception, but the company doesn't qualify as a religious employer exempt from providing the coverage.
Romney, in a statement issued by his campaign, said in part: "Freedom of conscience has won an important victory. Today's injunction preventing the federal government from forcing one family business from having to choose between keeping its doors open and violating its faith is a step in the right direction."
Obama is partly borrowing from the playbook of Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet's winning U.S. Senate race in 2010. Bennet narrowly beat Ken Buck after painting him as extreme in pointed TV ads about the Republican's opposition to abortion rights and popular forms of birth control. He carried Arapahoe and Jefferson counties by a combined 10,000 votes, about a third of his narrow margin over Buck.
"That portrayal of Buck is what beat him," said Democratic pollster Paul Harstad, an adviser to Bennet who also does polling for Obama's campaign.
Some Romney backers argue that Obama is attempting to distract female voters from the economy by emphasizing abortion.
"It has nothing to do with abortion," said Vickie Dow of Centennial, an upscale Arapahoe County suburb. "I'm worried about the economy. I'm really afraid things have gone downhill terribly."
Unemployment in Colorado was 8.2 percent in June, the same as nationally. It has ticked up slightly statewide and proportionally in Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, Denver's south and west suburbs where more than 20 percent of the state's population lives, after a slow decline over the past year when it dipped below the national average.
Romney, meanwhile, is seeking to court women like Debbie Brown of Centennial. She agrees with Republican pollsters who say that women are more acutely aware of economic ups and downs. Often household budget managers, women are more sensitive to fluctuations in the economy and see them as destabilizing to their families.
"It actually becomes a heart issue for them because they care so much about their families," said Brown, whose husband recently began working again after being unemployed for nine months.
Four years ago, Obama carried Colorado, which offers nine Electoral College votes, by 9 percentage points. The outcome in November is expected to be much closer, with recent public polls showing a tight race.
Romney views Colorado, which Republicans carried in every presidential election from 1968 to 2004, as a valuable potential pick-up. Obama aides argue that his 2008 victory is proof the Southwest's Republican trend is changing as Latinos, who typically vote Democratic, increase in numbers.
The candidates and their allies have combined to spend roughly $25 million in television advertising in Colorado – split nearly evenly between the two.
Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington and Associated Press writer Catherine Tsai in Denver contributed to this report.
99 Problems (JAY-Z)
Eric Fehrnstrom, senior campaign adviser for Mitt Romney, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/06/03/494238/fehrnstrom-shiny-objects-women/" target="_hplink">said on Sunday</a> that issues pertaining to women's reproductive rights, such as abortion and birth control, were "shiny objects" meant to distract voters from the real issues. "Mitt Romney is pro-life," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "He'll govern as a pro-life president, but you're going to see the Democrats use all sorts of shiny objects to distract people's attention from the Obama performance on the economy. This is not a social issue election."
The Senate will vote Thursday on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would expand and strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and make it illegal for employers to punish women for bringing up pay disparity issues. Dana Perino, a Fox News contributor and former press secretary for President George W. Bush, <a href="http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/04/30/perino-equal-pay-issue-is-a-distraction-for-just-48-hours/" target="_hplink">called the equal pay issue</a> "a distraction" from the country's real financial problems last week. "Well, it's just yet another distraction of dealing with the major financial issues that the country should be dealing with," Perino said. "This is not a job creator."
Just My Imagination (The Temptations)
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose home state's legislature recently defunded Planned Parenthood and voted to pass a bill that would allow employers to deny women birth control coverage, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/26/john-mccain-war-on-women_n_1455591.html" target="_hplink">delivered a floor speech</a> in which he insisted that the war on women is something imaginary for Democrats to "sputter about." "My friends, this supposed 'War on Women' or the use of similarly outlandish rhetoric by partisan operatives has two purposes, and both are purely political in their purpose and effect: The first is to distract citizens from real issues that really matter and the second is to give talking heads something to sputter about when they appear on cable television," he said.
Butterfly Fly Away (Miley & Billy Ray Cyrus)
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tried to trivialize concerns about the legislative "war on women" by comparing it to a "war on caterpillars." "If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we'd have problems with caterpillars," Priebus <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-05/priebus-says-gender-battle-as-fictonal-as-caterpillar-war.html" target="_hplink">said in an April interview</a> on Bloomberg Television. "It's a fiction."
Distraction (Angels And Airwaves)
Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Steelman (R) took heat from her opponents in May when she contended that Democratic lawmakers' focus on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was "a distraction" from the issues they should be dealing with instead. "I think it's unfortunate that the Democrats have made a political football out of this thing, which I think is what they keep doing to distract from real problems that are facing our nation," she said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio.
We Don't Care (Kanye West)
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) defended the Republican Party in April for going after insurance coverage for contraception by arguing that women don't actually care about contraception. "Women don't care about contraception," she said on ABC's The View. "They care about jobs and the economy and raising their families and all those other things."