By BEN FELLER AND KASIE HUNT, ASSOCIATED PRESS
TAMPA, Fla. — Seeking to shore up his support among women voters, President Barack Obama on Thursday hammered Republican rival Mitt Romney anew over his backing of Richard Mourdock, the Indiana Senate candidate drawing fire for saying that pregnancies that result from rape are "something God intended."
"Unlike some other leaders in the Republican Party, like John McCain, Mitt Romney hasn't questioned his endorsement of Richard Mourdock or ever once stood up to the most extreme elements of his own party. Instead, he tapes ads for them," Obama's campaign says in an online video. His aides haven't ruled out the possibility of using a similar message in TV ads in battleground states in the coming days as the president looks to break open a race national polls show is close.
While a Romney campaign aide has said he disagreed with Mourdock's remark, the Republican presidential nominee is standing by Mourdock and hasn't asked the Indiana state treasurer to take down a TV ad Romney filmed for him earlier this week.
Beyond the statement from an aide, the Republican nominee and his aides have worked to avoid the subject. Romney did not speak to reporters or address Mourdock's remarks during two public appearances Wednesday. His aides sometimes speak to reporters traveling on Romney's campaign plane but did not appear Wednesday, and were scarce at Romney's rallies. They ignored repeated emailed questions about Mourdock.
Made in a debate Tuesday with Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly, Mourdock's comment thrust a contentious social issue back into the presidential race less than two weeks before Election Day and with early voting underway in many states.
National polls show the race is close, though Romney is struggling to overtake Obama in the state-by-state march to racking up the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory. Romney has far fewer paths to reaching that threshold than Obama, who starts with more states – and more Electoral College votes – in his win column. The race is centered on just nine states, where polls show competitive races: Ohio, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin.
In several of those states, women voters hold the key.
After trailing Obama for months among women voters, Romney has started gaining ground in recent weeks. A new Associated Press-GfK poll released Thursday shows that Romney has erased Obama's 16-point advantage among women, while the president, in turn, has largely eliminated Romney's edge among men.
Obama aides see Romney's refusal thus far to pull his support for Mourdock as an opportunity to cast the GOP nominee as extreme on women's health issues and expose what they say is Romney's attempts to moderate those views for political gain.
On "The Tonight Show" Wednesday, Obama criticized Mourdock for his comments, saying "rape is rape" and distinctions offered by the Republican candidate "don't make any sense to me."
Obama was campaigning with all the signs that his presidency is on the line, crossing the country Wednesday with rallies in Iowa, Colorado and Nevada and appearing on the "The Tonight Show" in California. On Thursday, Obama was so not much starting his day as continuing his last one. After spending the night on Air Force One, he was campaigning in Tampa, Fla., Richmond, Va., and Cleveland before heading back to the White House.
Shortly after 7 a.m. and less than five hours after his day ended in Las Vegas, Obama was at a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop near downtown Tampa, and minutes later he delivered the still warm doughnuts to a firehouse in Tampa. He said he wanted to come by early – noting he is not often out this early – to say thank you for all they did.
Obama's campaign also announced joint rallies Monday with Bill Clinton in Orlando, Fla., Youngstown, Ohio, and Prince William County, Va. The president also picked up an endorsement from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who supported Obama in 2008. Powell praised Obama's handling of the economic recovery, telling "CBS This Morning," "I think we've begun to come out of the dive and we're gaining attitude."
Later Thursday, in his hometown of Chicago, Obama was scheduled to be the first president to vote early in person. By making a special trip just to cast his vote, Obama sought to build awareness about the early voting option, which is a vital part of both campaigns' political operations.
The nonstop travels were the busiest single stretch of Obama's long and combative run for a second term.
Romney was waking up in Cincinnati to kick off a daylong swing through three Ohio towns, sharpening his focus on a state that's critical to his hopes of winning the White House. The Republican's advisers say their internal data has him tied to win the state's 18 electoral college votes, but public polling has shown Obama with a slim lead.
Romney is working to cast Obama's campaign as focused on small issues while the Republican ticket is focused on fixing the nation's serious fiscal problems.
"His campaign seems to be smaller and smaller by the day," Romney told more than 2,000 people in an airplane hangar off the tarmac in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, his campaign plane looming behind him. "Attacking me is not an agenda for the future."
He campaigned in Iowa hours after Obama, who had stopped in the state earlier in the day.
Romney's stop was brief; less than an hour after landing Romney was en route to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he spent the night.