By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney has single women, working women, and arguably, Rush Limbaugh, to thank for his narrow win in the Ohio presidential primary, but that won't defuse the Republican Party's "woman problem" in November's general election.
Exit polling for Tuesday's Republican contest in Ohio, a national bellwether state, suggest that the rise of abortion and contraception as election issues, and a week of controversy surrounding right-wing talk show host Limbaugh, affected the election.
Romney won by 3 percentage points among women but by much larger margins among two groups in particular: working women and single women.
Santorum, a social conservative and devout Catholic, has put issues like abortion, birth control, religion's role in society and a woman's place in the workforce in the campaign spotlight as Republicans compete for their party's nomination to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November.
That shored up his support among the most conservative Republican voters but threatens to drain votes from moderates and especially younger women voters.
On Tuesday, only 21 percent of Ohio's voters were identified as women who work. But of those, Romney bested Santorum by a 8-point margin. And unmarried women of all ages favored Romney by 17 points, 45 percent to 28 percent.
Romney's margin of support among those groups was much greater in Ohio than just a week ago, when the former Massachusetts governor narrowly won in Michigan.
"I was surprised in Michigan that there wasn't more of a move away from Santorum among women. But another week of information flow and the Rush Limbaugh effect are taking hold," said Krystal Ball, a Democratic strategist.
In more conservative states like Oklahoma, Romney did worse among single women. But Ohio is considered a swing state in the middle of the political spectrum and thus more reflective of a national trend.
'SLUT' COMMENT OUTRAGE
On his radio show last week, Limbaugh branded Georgetown University law student and activist Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" for speaking out in support of Obama's policies on insurance coverage for birth control.
The comments sparked outrage, and despite various apologies by Limbaugh, dozens of advertisers and some radio stations dumped the top-rated talk show, which reaches about 15 million listeners each week.
Santorum is the candidate most associated with an extreme position on women's issues and thus most likely to suffer at the ballot box from the Limbaugh flap.
"There continues to be overwhelming support and tolerance for the use of birth control, despite the recent 'Rush-tastic' Republican crusade," said Margie Omero of polling firm Momentum Analysis.
Ohio voter Michelle McMahon, 42, was one of those who voted for Romney with an eye on issues that affect women.
"Santorum's stances on social issues are too extreme - especially women's issues," said the homemaker who is finishing a Masters degree in accounting and financial management.
Male voters outnumbered women among Ohio Republicans by a narrow margin, as they do in most Republican primaries.
But the tables are turned in presidential elections when women typically vote at a higher rate than men. In 2008, women cast almost 10 million more votes than men, favoring Obama by 56 percent to 43 percent for John McCain.
After polls showed a trend of women away from the president, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll this week found women are returning to Obama, approving of the president by 54 percent to 40 percent. Obama leads Romney by 55 percent to 37 percent among women.
A mid-February survey by consulting group Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the progressive Democracy Corps, showed that just as unmarried women soundly rejected Santorum in the Ohio primary, they would reject Romney in a general election.
While Romney often sidesteps polarizing social issues, even Republican pundits said he lost an opportunity with women with his tepid response to Limbaugh's incendiary remarks. Romney said over the weekend "those aren't the words I would have chosen" and left it at that.
Romney, a former private equity kingpin, has tried to keep his campaign focused on the economy and job creation. Those issues are No. 1 for women too, his wife, Ann, told cheering supporters in Boston on Tuesday night.
"Do you know what women care about?" she said. "Women care about jobs. Women care about the economy. They care about their children and they care about the debt, and they're angry."
(Additional reporting by Eric Johnson in Ohio; Editing by Mary Milliken and Doina Chiacu; For more on the U.S. presidential campaign, click on [ID:nUSVOTE])