ARVADA, Colo. — A nation at war, crippling joblessness and a looming budget standoff that could wreck the economy have been overshadowed in recent days by an issue that polls show doesn't even crack voters' lists of top 10 concerns: abortion.

Missouri Republican Todd Akin's comment that women who were victims of "legitimate rape" rarely become pregnant touched off furious maneuvering by Republicans and Democrats alike, the latest iteration of a campaign that has been driven by both sides' need to court a small slice of the American electorate. Several hundred thousand independent suburban women will play an outsized role in deciding whether President Barack Obama keeps his job.

Obama's campaign continued to press the issue Monday. In a tweet from (at)BarackObama, it noted that the GOP platform calls for outlawing abortion in cases of rape and incest. "Make sure the women in your life know: The GOP wants to take us back to the 1950s on women's health."

On Sunday, Mitt Romney accused Obama's campaign of sinking to a sad low by trying to link the GOP candidate to Akin's statements about rape and abortion.

Romney also conceded that the controversy is hurting the Republican Party, and GOP chairman Reince Priebus said Akin's insistence on staying in the Missouri Senate race could cost the party its shot at winning control of the Senate in November.

"It really is sad, isn't it, with all the issues that America faces for the Obama campaign to continue to stoop to such a low level," Romney said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."

Romney's comments were in response to Obama's contention that the Republican candidate has locked himself into "extreme positions" on economic and social issues and would surely impose them if elected president.

"I don't think that if Congress presented him with some of the items that are in the Republican platform at this convention that would, for example, entirely roll back women's control over their reproductive health, that he would stand in the way," Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press published Saturday.

The charges and countercharges reflect an ongoing political skirmish that shows no signs of letting up about two months before Election Day.

While suburban women are always a sought-after demographic in presidential campaigns – 10 million more women than men voted in 2008 – both sides agree that this campaign has been marked by an unusual intensity of debate over women's issues, particularly reproductive rights.

Both sides have clashed this year over Romney's calls to end federal funding of Planned Parenthood, Republican demands to let some employers with religious beliefs avoid covering workers' birth control costs and a Democratic political operative's chastising of Romney's wife for being a housewife.

Polling data is mixed and hotly debated over whether the abortion issue helps candidates who favor abortion rights or those who oppose them. But Tony Robinson, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, said that Republicans are in peril this time because the stances they are now talking about – like banning abortion in cases of rape or restricting birth control – are ones that are widely unpopular.

"Whatever party is driven to its most extreme positions on this is punished by the electorate," Robinson said.

Democrats and some independent analysts say Republicans kicked off the debate by tacking hard to the right during the GOP primary.

"Rick Santorum is really the person they have to blame for this attention now," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, referring to the former Pennsylvania senator and strong abortion foe, who fought to pull social conservatives away from Romney during the primary.

In the hours after Akin's comments, Democrats leapt at the chance to link him to the Republican presidential ticket – almost as quickly as Romney, his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, and other prominent conservatives – scrambled to condemn the remarks.

Democrats noted that Ryan had co-sponsored a controversial bill of Akin's that they contended would redefine rape, announced a list of abortion rights activists as speakers at their upcoming convention and a weeklong national swing of female surrogates dubbed the "Romney/Ryan: Wrong for Women" tour.

Meanwhile, Republicans, who have their own woman-heavy lineup of convention speakers, defended their inclusion of a plank in their party platform outlawing abortion in the case of rape.

Colorado is one of the most competitive presidential states, where pollsters estimate about 100,000 undecided voters – the majority of whom are females who favor abortion rights – will decide the race. Both campaigns are fighting hard in the state for the women's vote.

The Romney campaign holds weekly women's phone banks, where female volunteers gather to call other women and urge them to back the Republican ticket. The Obama campaign holds meetings, house parties and canvasses for women, and has television ads attacking Romney's stance on reproductive rights in heavy rotation.

During a campaign visit earlier this month, Obama was introduced by Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who was called a "slut" by Rush Limbaugh for her prepared testimony to a Senate committee that health insurance should cover birth control.

"When it comes to a woman's right to make her own health care choices," Obama said of his opponents, "they want to take us back to policies better suited to the 1950s than the 21st century. Colorado, you have to make sure it doesn't happen."

On Thursday, in an interview with a Denver television station, Romney was asked how he would close the gender gap that persistently shows women favoring Obama.

"I think the issues women care about are the issues that our campaign is focused on – which is, Number One, making sure that women and their kids and other members of their family are able to have good jobs," he said.

Analysts say both candidates face risks.

Romney needs only look to the last competitive election in Colorado, when Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet defied the 2010 GOP landslide by eking a narrow victory over his Republican opponent, Ken Buck.

Bennet painted his opponent as insensitive to women's issues while a debate also raged over a statewide ballot measure to grant legal rights to a fertilized egg. It was overwhelmingly defeated by a 70-30 percent margin but is returning to the ballot in November. Democrats here have eagerly noted that Ryan sponsored a similar bill in Congress.

Veteran Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said Obama must be careful not to look "extreme" in his use of reproductive issues, but that he's been lucky because Republicans keep bringing them up on their own.

Ciruli said the women swing voters the president is targeting "love politics to be above politics. They love for all of us to be together. They can be very put off by narrow appeals."

Both sides note that Obama's pitch on women's issues may also rally his sometimes disaffected base – just as critical in a nail-biter race where few have yet to choose sides. Indeed, on a recent morning in this key swing suburb, every one of a half-dozen women interviewed on the contest had already made up their minds.

Colleen Faust, a 70-year-old retired teacher and Democrat, recalled writing a paper about a woman's right to birth control when she graduated college in 1965. "I grew up in pre-Roe v. Wade and I don't trust the Republicans," she said, referring to the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

Cherie Harris, 48, a self-identified strong conservative who owns a firearms and self-defense business, scoffed at arguments about women's health issues. "That's a big smoke screen," she said. "My 21- and 22-year-olds, how're they going to be able to find jobs? That's what I worry about as a woman."

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • 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."

  • Talk (Coldplay)

    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."