March 17, 2012 -- In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote her first book as first lady and called it "It's Up to the Women." The book wasn't necessarily about politics, but in it she challenged the female population to reach for new goals and seek purpose.
She wrote, "The attitudes of women will shape who we become as a society."
The title and theme of Roosevelt's book might well apply to the presidential race today. The most recent chapter in the Republican primary has put unusual focus on issues important to woman -- such as abortion and birth control -- that many thought had been settled decades ago. And even though the general election is months away, Democrats on Friday published a video about Mitt Romney's positions on Planned Parenthood and other women's issues.
It would be an exaggeration to say that female voters are the only important bloc in the election, but observers of women's role in politics predict that in a close race — either in a primary or in the general election — women will make the difference.
A key test approaches in Illinois next Tuesday. Romney has outspent his top opponent, Rick Santorum, but a close race is expected. In states with similar demographics, such as Ohio and Michigan, Romney has triumphed with women — he led Santorum by 11 points among working women in Ohio, and by 14 points among unmarried women.
Romney won that primary by less than 1 percent.
"In any close election, women voters are a decisive factor in the outcome," said Ruth Mandel, a founder of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.
In this particularly weird political season, women have had an array of criteria by which to judge the candidates, economic matters aside. Led mostly by Santorum, the most socially conservative of the current contenders, the candidates have offered their views on birth control, abortion, women in combat, and have even weighed in on Rush Limbaugh's assaults on Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who testified to Congress about contraception.
Most recently, Romney has drawn scrutiny for saying that "we're going to get rid of" Planned Parenthood. In a video aimed at Illinois voters, a female narrator in a Democratic National Committee video says that "he supports extreme policies that would take away a woman's right to choose and ban many forms of birth control, including the pill."
Romney was also greeted in Chicago on Friday by protesters, including a Democratic congresswoman who held signs that read "Keep your Mitt(s) off birth control."
Combine that with Romney's lukewarm response to Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" and his support of "personhood" legislation that defines life as beginning at contraception, and Democrats know that they have plenty of opportunities to bring all those issues back to the top of the list in the fall if he takes on President Obama.
"If they don't, we should be sued for malpractice," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has tracked women's views meticulously.
It is true that nearly all voters, women included, consider the economy the most important issue in the election. A key difference with men, though, is that male voters worry more about jobs. Women are generally more focused on the price of things that affect their families, or benefits tied to a job, Lake said.
In the 2006 midterm elections and the 2008 presidential race, the independent female voter was reliably Democratic, helping to usher in Democratic majorities in Congress and to elect Barack Obama. Women typically favor Democrats, but in 2010 they voted for Republicans by a slim margin, and the Democrats lost control of the House.
In a presidential race, women voters generally care more about the character of a candidate than men do, said Mandel. Key to that measure is a candidate's consistency, a quality that Romney has struggled with as he changes his stances. Mandel suggested that while Santorum has taken more extreme positions on women's issues — such as suggesting that men would lose control of their emotions if they fought with women on the front lines of war — he has at least been convincing in what he believes in.
"The abortion issue hurts you more in the campaign if you're seen to change your mind as the winds of the election blow over you, and make you realize that you're going to be caught out in the cold, because the voters aren't in the same place you are," Mandel said.
Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, wrote this week that Republicans can win back women by flatly calling Limbaugh's recent comments inappropriate, and by acknowledging their wary standing with the party right now.
"Women need to be reassured that the Republican Party does not believe in dictating women's reproductive choices for them," she wrote.
Lake said that according to her polling, women have shifted back toward the center since the 2010 midterms and are leaning toward Democrats, helped in no small part by the GOP candidates' fixation on female social issues.
"Usually, independent women do not pay a bit of attention to primaries of either party," she said. "These guys have succeeded in gaining their attention, which is pretty miraculous."