DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — With just weeks left in a tight Senate race that he started with an advantage, Democrat Bruce Braley is pressing to raise concerns among women voters about his Republican opponent, Joni Ernst, and take some of the sheen off the farm-raised, military veteran who rose from relative obscurity to GOP stardom during the campaign.
The four-term congressman and Democratic supporters are running ads and holding events questioning Ernst's position on abortion rights. He is also bringing in high-profile surrogates, including first lady Michelle Obama, and attacking Ernst on the minimum wage, another issue the campaign thinks resonates with female voters.
Iowa has never elected a woman to Congress or as governor, an embarrassing distinction for a state that prides itself on its progressive tradition. Ernst has stressed her background as a mother and female veteran as she has made her case to Iowa voters. She was featured in a Women of the GOP video posted online by the Republican National Committee this week.
Braley's strategy for winning depends on persuading women, especially those who are moderate or independent, not to vote for her. Targeting women in the final days of close races has also proved effective for other Democrats, including retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, who Braley is seeking to succeed.
"Joni Ernst, too extreme for Iowa," scrolls the text of one ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which details Ernst's support as a state lawmaker of a state amendment bestowing personhood status on a fetus. The ad says the measure could have resulted in banning certain forms of contraception, outlawing abortions and criminalizing the procedure by doctors.
In response to the abortion attacks, Ernst, said during a recent debate that the personhood amendment was "a statement of life," insisting that that it wouldn't necessarily do any of the things Braley asserts and noting that no legislation was ever passed. She stressed that she supports access to contraception.
According to a 2012 exit poll, 62 percent of Iowa women said abortion should be legal most of the time, compared to 48 percent of men.
Ernst spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said in a statement that the campaign is "confident those attacks will fall flat against a strong, independent woman and mother like Joni."
Some polls have suggested the race was slipping away from Braley, 56, but recent surveys indicate it appears again to be closely locked. National Democrats remain worried about losing a seat long held by Harkin. Republicans — who need six seats to gain a Senate majority — want to flip the seat, and both sides have poured millions into the race.
Ernst, 44, an Iraq War veteran and officer in the Iowa National Guard from the small town of Red Oak, has based her campaign on her personal story, offering a series of television ads where she talks warmly to the camera about her "Iowa values." In the past year, Ernst's surge from unknown state lawmaker to possible Senate winner has drawn national attention.
Democrats, in Iowa and elsewhere, traditionally rely on women's support because women tend to be more liberal than men. Polling shows that Iowa women favor Braley, compared to men who greatly prefer Ernst. Braley has brought in prominent women's advocates like Cecile Richards, President of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, to campaign for him. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also join the effort.
Braley is hoping the issues help make up for the personality competition, which he is losing. Looking like the former courtroom lawyer he is, Braley was affable and attentive last week as he shook hands and chatted with seniors, many of whom admitted they did not know who he was. Braley recently started airing ads in which he speaks to the camera, unlike most of his earlier spots.
In addition to Michelle Obama's appearance with Braley Friday, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will campaign with Ernst Sunday.
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.