WASHINGTON -- The Obama campaign made a coldly calculated decision early this year to go after the women's vote by attacking Mitt Romney on his right-to-life position.
They put together ads targeting women that focused solely on abortion and contraceptives. And throughout the summer they ran them nonstop in a massive ad buy that significantly enlarged Barack Obama's lead among women voters.
While polls showed women were concerned with many other issues, such as a brutally high unemployment rate, the weak economy, deepening deficits and debt, and other domestic problems, the Obama men on the campaign saw women as single-issue voters and treated them that way.
The ads did not run nationally, but were used primarily in key battleground states that will decide this election. Across the Potomac River in Virginia, those ads ran continually, as they did elsewhere. And they did their job for a while.
But what did Obama's ads tell us about how his campaign staff saw the women's vote, or more important, how they perceived women in general?
They were saying women weren't as concerned about other important political issues that make the top 10 list in the campaign polls; that they could be easily manipulated with frightening demagoguery suggesting Romney was going to make abortions illegal and, if given the chance, deny them access to contraceptives.
For the record, the former governor personally opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or if the life of the mother is in danger. Though he thinks government should not be in the business of funding contraceptives, or forcing church groups and their institutions to provide them in their insurance policies when it violates their religious beliefs, as Obamacare would, Romney supports contraception.
But Obama's insulting, insensitive and, yes, even sexist ad strategy now appears to be a political miscalculation of huge proportions.
After the first game-changing presidential debate, many women began moving away from Obama after watching his pitiful performance.
They were drawn to Romney by his strong focus on the weak economy, the decline in full-time jobs, trillions in new debt, rising poverty, especially among women, and other issues that concern them a great deal more than the issue of contraceptives.
Here's what USA TODAY's Susan Page reported earlier this week in a front-page story on a Gallup poll that was headlined "Swing States poll: Women push Romney into lead": "Mitt Romney leads President Obama by four percentage points among likely voters in the nation's top battlegrounds, and he has growing enthusiasm among women to thank."
The USA TODAY/Gallup poll numbers "show that Mitt Romney leads Obama by 50 percent to 46 percent among likely voters in the swing states." Women, who previously supported the president by lopsided margins, were now narrowly divided 49 percent for Obama and 48 percent for Romney.
"That makes women, especially blue-collar 'waitress moms' whose families have been hard-hit by the nation's economic woes, the quintessential swing voters in 2012's close race," Page writes.
So while the network news and cable shows still persist in spreading the myth that Obama retains a major lead among women, the pollsters who know better paint a very different picture.
"In every poll, we've seen a major surge among women in favorability for Romney" since his strong performance in the first debate, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
Lake believes the changed views among women about Romney could be "a precursor to movement" toward him. "It opens them up to take a second look, and that's the danger for Obama."
Now, in the wake of Tuesday's debate, an increasingly desperate Obama campaign is trying to make an issue out of Romney's story that as governor he asked aides to provide more women candidates for top positions in his administration. Pretty soon, he said, he received "binders full of women."
"I've got to tell you, we don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women," Obama said while campaigning in Iowa. CNN tried to cook up a head of steam on the issue Wednesday, but it quickly fell flat on its face, as Romney has escalated his attacks on the president's abysmal record on women in Obama's jobless, poverty-stricken economy.
Romney's strongest attack line was delivered forcefully in the second debate: "There are 3.5 million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office. We don't have to live like this."
"This is a presidency that has not helped America's women, and as I go across the country and ask women, 'What can I do to help?' what they speak about day in and day out is, 'Help me find a good job, or a good job for my spouse,'" Romney said in Ohio Wednesday
"That's what the women of America are concerned about. And the answers are coming back from us and not from Barack Obama," he said.
As for Romney's record on hiring women when he was governor of Massachusetts, here's what his running mate and lieutenant governor Kerry Healey said this week:
"When Mitt Romney talks about women, when he says he believes that we can do any job a man can do, I know from experience that he's speaking from the heart," she said in a statement. "Of the 20 top positions in the Romney administration, 10 of them were filled by women, more than any other state in the nation."
The worst mistake you can make in a campaign is to talk down to any group of voters, underestimate them or pander to them. Obama's top campaign men -- the highest posts are all males -- thought they could easily lock up the women's vote on a single issue.
But they've learned to their regret that women have the same concerns as everyone else in our country right now, and the same hope: to put a man in the Oval Office who knows how to get America working again.
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