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For women at GOP convention, a mission to overcome Romney’s gender gap

At the GOP convention, some women are baffled that more females aren’t flocking to Mitt Romney. Others are organizing networks to contact friends who may need a nudge to support the Republican.

Janet Barresi, a delegate to the Republican National Convention from Oklahoma City, looks around the Tampa Bay Times Forum at the sea of faces – many of them women – and shakes her head.

“You know, I’ve always wondered about those polls” showing Mitt Romney losing to President Obama among women, says Ms. Barresi, Oklahoma’s schools superintendent. “Because women care about their families, they care about their communities, they care about the country, and they can’t help but be drawn to Mitt Romney.”

Barresi sees all the Democrats’ talk of a Republican “war on women” as just “a diversion away from the failures of the present administration.”

But the reality is that Mr. Romney consistently trails Mr. Obama among women, who make up more than half of the electorate. So when Romney delivers his acceptance speech Thursday night, in the biggest national audience of his career, warming up his image among women will be high on his agenda. Ann Romney’s buzz-worthy performance Tuesday night may well have helped – it’s too soon to say – but ultimately, it’s the candidate who has to sell himself, analysts say.

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The latest Gallup analysis shows Obama’s advantage among women hasn’t changed since tracking polls of the presidential campaign began in April: eight percentage points, as of mid-August. Romney leads Obama among men by an equal amount, so for Romney, winning more women could tip a close election.

“If we lose the independent women’s vote, we lose,” says Sonja Eddings Brown, founder of The Kitchen Cabinet, an effort to spur turnout by conservative women. The group’s modus operandi is to link existing networks and leaders and to leverage their reach through personal contact and social media.

“The No. 1 way to move a woman’s vote is to have a friend – not a husband, not a mother, but a friend – move her vote,” Ms. Brown says.  

Working the convention floor and hallways is Becky Davies, who is handing out Kitchen Cabinet buttons. She’s a big Romney fan – and has known him for 37 years. Her husband is Mrs. Romney’s brother.

“It’s very hard for us to see what the local press does, what they say, because that’s not who Mitt is. He is the real deal,” says Ms. Davies, who lives in San Diego. “I don’t think you’ll find a more pristine candidate anyplace, except maybe Paul Ryan.”

Of course, Davies is hardly the typical conventiongoer. But in interviews with delegates, the Monitor found common themes emerging over and over on the issue of how to boost Romney’s support among women. Many were small-business owners, who like his record as a practical problem solver. Others focus on social issues, and they were thrilled when he put Representative Ryan on the ticket with him – a sign that Romney was reinforcing his conservative turn on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

“I had an opportunity to meet Mitt Romney at an event in Hartford, with six women around a table,” says Ann Brickley, an engineer from Wethersfield, Conn., who has a consulting business. “You could see when he went around the table, he was listening to us. He asked good questions. He even made us laugh.”

Ms. Brickley, like just about everyone else, brings up Romney’s not-so-secret weapon: Ann. “She was sincere and spoke from the heart,” Brickley says, noting her emphasis on love.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came out and said, “Tonight, we choose respect over love,” Brickley says, “that disturbed me a bit.”

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Brian Dubie, a former lieutenant governor of Vermont and a delegate here, says Romney has a real secret weapon, in addressing his gender gap: the woman who served as his lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, Kerry Healey.

“She had great respect and a great relationship with Governor Romney,” says Mr. Dubie. “That plays a couple of ways – both in how he treats a colleague and also to reaffirm her as a woman. That’s an insight that most people wouldn’t have.”

Ms. Healey addresses the convention Thursday night.

Serena Goldstock of Las Vegas, a delegate from the battleground state of Nevada, also spoke of Mrs. Romney’s speech and how her struggles with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer made her relatable to average women. Some women here said they weren’t aware of her health issues until this week – a sign that, as much as political junkies may feel that the public is already quite familiar with the Romneys, some voters (even convention delegates) are just starting to tune in to the details.

So for Romney, the bad news is that he faces an uphill climb with many women voters outside the warm confines of the Tampa convention. Some tell pollsters they’re worried his plans for Medicare and Social Security could rip holes in the social safety net. Romney’s threat to defund Planned Parenthood, a major provider of birth control and cancer screenings, also worries some moderate women.

The recent blowup in the Missouri Senate race, in which Republican candidate Todd Akin asserted that women rarely get pregnant in cases of “legitimate rape,” hardly helped the GOP’s image.

But especially among working-class white women – the so-called Walmart moms – there are plenty of votes up for grabs.

“This race is very tight with voters trying to size up each candidate as they perceive them: the relatable personality of Obama but his less-than-stellar job performance versus Romney’s distant personality but his proven track record in business,” write two bipartisan pollsters who recently conducted focus groups of Walmart moms – female voters with children under 18 at home, who shop regularly at Walmart – in Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Walmart moms represent 27 percent of all registered women voters and 14 percent of voters overall. A majority voted for Obama in 2008, swung toward the Republicans in the 2010 midterms, and are still unhappy with Obama. But they haven’t given up on him.

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Brown, The Kitchen Cabinet founder, says that 30 million women didn’t vote in 2008, and the No. 1 reason was that they did not know where to go. The second was that they lacked confidence.

“Those are the women The Kitchen Cabinet is going after,” she says. “We’re going to use online tools and social networking, and ask them to work on the women that they know first.”