By Steven T. Dennis
Democratic and Republican women on Capitol Hill are increasingly squaring off as surrogates as the battle for women's votes rages on the presidential campaign trail.
Republican women including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris
Rodgers (Wash.) have become more prominent for the GOP and the campaign of presumptive nominee Mitt Romney in recent weeks, as they are deployed on conference calls, on cable networks, at press events in the Capitol and on Twitter amid the "mommy wars."
Republicans are trying to narrow a persistent gender gap showing women prefer President Barack Obama by double digits, and the GOP women say they're offended by Democratic charges that their party is engaged in a "war on women."
"I feel compelled and I know other Republican women feel compelled to really expose the myth that there's a war on women," said McMorris Rodgers, a member of House Republican leadership. "It's an effort to drive a political wedge in an election year."
McMorris Rodgers dismissed Democratic attacks over issues like contraception or the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
"They are creating these distractions because they can't run on their own record," she said. "There is no disagreement over reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. We are going to move forward in a bipartisan fashion like we always have. ... It's a nonissue. The real issues are the ones that relate to health care and the economy and jobs and the debt, the terrible debt that this president is leaving for our children and grandchildren."
And she said Democrats can't assume women will be with them in the end.
"The women of this country voted Republican in 2010," McMorris Rodgers said. "It could be argued that the women actually unelected the first woman Speaker of the House. They didn't like the direction that the country was taking."
She added that Republicans need to talk about the role women play in health care decisions -- and their concerns about the federal government interfering with them -- and noted that more women than ever are starting small businesses but becoming frustrated with tax and regulatory burdens.
Ayotte said it's not hard for her to sell Romney's position on the economy and the deficit to women.
"You think about the job losses women have sustained under this presidency, and Mitt Romney has the experience to know how the private sector works, to get people working again," she said.
"I ran for office because I've got two children," she added, and had concerns about the soaring federal debt. "I know as a mother, I always think what's the legacy, what are we passing on? And he's got such a strong position on those fiscal issues, and the president has failed on those issues so miserably."
But Democratic women, who vastly outnumber their Republican counterparts in Congress, say the efforts won't do much for Romney or the GOP.
They say the Republican brand with women has been damaged by a series of fights at both the state and federal levels and won't be easily repaired.
"I go home and what women come up to me and say is "why is the Republican Party intruding on my personal decisions?' ... Especially young women on the issue of contraception and equal access to health care," said Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), Senate Democrats' campaign chief.
Surrogates aren't enough, she added.
"You can stand there and put a woman next to you, but [it won't work] unless you have somebody really working on the policies that help your family, whether it's Pell Grants and student loans, whether it's child care, whether it's transportation infrastructure," Murray said. "That's what women care about. That's what I'm hearing from women at home. ... It's the policies, it's the realities of what you are fighting for. ... That's an agenda, not a gender."
"I don't blame them for trying because they are going to have to do something," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said, referring to the Romney campaign turning to female surrogates. But, she said, "talking points and conference calls aren't going to do it."
Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) predicted the gender gap would persist.
"Whether it's equal pay or whether it's access to women's health services, there is a keen difference between the parties, and no matter how many people you put out there, it doesn't change it," she said.
And even if Romney does adjust his policies to appeal to women, it won't work either, she said.
"How do you trust that, when just a month ago or two months ago or six months ago he said something completely different? ... It's all about who do you trust to stand up for you and to understand your issues and concerns and priorities."