Mitt Romney: Can his wife save his campaign?

Mitt Romney has a big gender gap in head-to-head match-ups with Obama. On Sunday, his wife, Ann, spoke out about women's economic concerns at a campaign event in Illinois.

Steven Senne/AP
Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, waves during a campaign stop at Charlie Parker's Diner in Springfield, Ill., Monday, as the former Gov. prepares to present a pancake.

Ann Romney has begun to speak out more forcefully to women voters – a sure sign that the Romney campaign is trying to shore up its yawning deficit with President Obama in the women’s vote.

At a pancake breakfast Sunday in Moline, Ill., the wife of the Republican frontrunner said she was “really upset,” and then made a pitch to the women in the crowd.

“I love it that women are upset, too, that women are talking about the economy, I love that,” Mrs. Romney said, according to ABC News. “Women are talking about jobs, women are talking about deficit spending. Thank you, women. We need you. We all need you in November, too. We have to remember why we’re upset and what we’ve got to do to fix things.”

Mitt Romney, appearing at the same event, continued on the women’s theme: “You’ve got a lot of moms that are driving their kids to school and practice after school and other appointments and wonder how they can afford putting gasoline in the car, at the same time putting food on the table night after night,” he said.

The latest polls provide signs of a full-blown crisis for Romney in the women’s vote, if he’s the Republican nominee. The Pew Research Center shows Obama with a 20-point advantage over Romney among women (and a 3-point advantage among men). Fox News has Obama leading Romney among women by 12 points, with Romney leading Obama among men by 5 points.

A gender gap isn’t necessarily fatal to Romney. Since 1980, every presidential election has featured a gender gap – the difference in the percentage of men and women who support a particular candidate – and Republicans have still managed to win some. In 2008, Obama enjoyed a 7-point gender gap: He beat John McCain among women 56-43 and among men 49-48. But in 2004, President Bush won reelection despite a gender gap. So to beat Obama, Romney doesn’t need to win among women – he  just needs to minimize his deficit and do well among men.

Enter Ann Romney. Indeed, she has enjoyed the benefits of marriage to a wealthy businessman, including “a couple of Cadillacs,” as her husband famously mentioned last month. And unlike most modern-day women, she didn’t have to work outside the home to make ends meet as she raised her five sons.

But Mrs. Romney has had her share of challenges – including diagnoses of multiple sclerosis and breast cancer – that make her relatable to many women. And as much as anything husband Mitt can say in a direct appeal to women, it may be that his loyalty to her through 42 years of marriage is as good an advertisement to women as any.

Still, the Republican nomination battle has taken a serious detour away from the most important issue – the economy – with all the talk about birth control. On the evening of Super Tuesday, March 6, Ann Romney seemed to get that: “Women care about the economy, they care about their children, and they care about the debt,” she said in remarks introducing her husband. “And they’re angry, they’re furious about the entitlement debt that we’re leaving our children.”

Political scientists say that a presidential candidate’s wife has little impact on her husband’s electoral prospects, citing a lack of evidence. But given the importance of the first lady’s role in modern American life – highlighting issues, appearing often at the president’s side, and presumably sharing her opinions in private – it’s easy to conclude that voters see a prospective “first couple” as a package. And so Ann Romney could end up being a crucial piece of Mitt Romney’s electoral puzzle.

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