HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- If you're an undecided or still "persuadable" female voter in a swing state, last night's debate was all about -- and for -- you.
Everyone else was more or less a bystander.
Here is the math you need to know. The last Republican to win the female vote was Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988 -- by 1 percentage point. Since then, Democrats have had the loyalty of strong majorities of women in an increasingly female electorate.
After his disastrously weak debate performance in Denver two weeks ago, President Obama's standing with women -- and Republican Mitt Romney's -- changed dramatically. Romney went from trailing badly (56-38 percent in the Pew poll of two months ago) to even (47-47). A Gallup poll earlier this week showed Romney almost even (48-49 percent) among women in swing states.
It's not an exaggeration to say that the chief, if not sole, objective of the Obama campaign in the final three weeks of this campaign is to get enough of those women back to win the race.
"It's doable," said Democratic campaign consultant Joe Trippi, "and they should be able to do it. They've got three weeks and they have demographics, geography and history on their side. They have to get those numbers at least part way back to where they should be."
What the Obama campaign does not have on its side is the economy, which is still weak and which, today, women know as much, if not more, about than men do. Female voters have as dim a view as men of job prospects and the country's overall direction.
In the end, Obama won last night's debate against Romney on points. But the total score was less important than what he did -- and what Romney didn't do -- to woo women who remain "gettable" in states such as Colorado, Virginia and Ohio.
Jim Messina, the president's campaign manager, was laser-focused on those voters here at Hofstra before and after the debate. "The undecideds that matter most are women in those states," he said.
In Colorado, which leans libertarian as much as Democrat or Republican, undecided women are pulled towards Romney by his emphasis on low-tax, anti-regulatory policies that he says will help "small business." But that same libertarian streak pulls Colorado women towards Obama for his strong support of abortion rights, reproductive freedoms, health care and pay equity.
It was no accident that the president hit all of those themes last night.
Romney helped out by failing to answer a question about pay-equity legislation. Today, The Huffington Post's Sam Stein confirmed with Romney aides that their candidate, while vowing not to try to repeal it, would not have signed the legislation into law in the first place.
Policy aside, the former Massachusetts governor may have hurt himself more with his cultural references, odd language and haughty manner.
He put the issue of pay for women in the context of the need to preserve traditional families, in which moms have time for home making and child rearing. He said that as governor he had ordered the assembly of dossiers on females he might hire -- what he called (and Twitter instantly made famous) "binders of women."
And as he always does, Romney tried to bully the debate moderator, control the psychic if not physical space and write his own rules. Only this time he was up against not only a revived and attacking president, but Candy Crowley of CNN, a smart, independent woman -- and a sympathetic character if there ever was one.
The president ignored the rules, too, but was less haughty and peevish about it.
Some analysts wondered why Romney used his closing statement to bring up a topic the president had not raised: Romney's caught-on-tape private dismissal of 47 percent of the electorate. "I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future," Romney insisted. "I care about our kids."
Why do this? To reach undecided women, who don't generally see "callous" as a character trait that they want in a president.
At a time when voters are dubious about whether anyone can fix the economy, likability is an especially crucial factor. "It's like, 'I'm not sure either of these guys can get me a job, so who do I like better?'" Trippi, the Democratic campaign consultant, said. "That is still Obama, and that should help him win this."
CORRECTION:An earlier version of this article stated President George H.W. Bush won in 1988 by 2 percentage points among women voters. He won by 1 percentage point.
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.
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