In case you missed it, the theme here in Tampa at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday was: "We Built It." Intended as a reference to building a business, the three words also suggested another construction project under way — a bridge to female voters.
Ann Romney, the wife of presidential nominee Mitt Romney, was obviously the focal point for the strategy. But long before she came on stage for her mission of humanizing her husband, the convention had been shown a parade of female officials and officeholders.
Prominent among these were Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Govs. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, all elected in 2010 and all given coveted speaking slots in the evening program (as Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico will have Wednesday). And while none of these speakers is likely to displace the memory of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska in 2008, all were forceful in attacking the Obama administration and promoting the gospel of female Republicanism.
Earlier, the arena had been lit up by Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, and a candidate for Congress in that state's 4th District. Love was featured first in a video that only hinted at her personal electricity. The Brooklyn-born daughter of Haitian immigrants, Love (nee Ludmya Bourdeau) became a Mormon when she married her husband, whom she met while he was serving his Mormon mission.
The delegates were also introduced to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Eastern Washington, a familiar face on Capitol Hill who, as vice-chairman of the House Republican Conference, is the highest-ranking woman in the congressional ranks of the GOP. Rodgers will be a recurring "host" of subsequent sessions as well.
Even Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, the bluff and burly siege gun who provided the night's keynote address, seemed to have gotten the memo. He saluted his mother at length in his recollection of his childhood. He called her "the enforcer" and added that in the "car that was their marriage, my father was the passenger." And when excoriating President Obama's health care law, Christie got a roar from the crowd by saying it would "put a federal bureaucrat between a woman and her doctor."
The afternoon session was much the same, as Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus called one woman after another to the lectern and often turned to female members of state delegations to make motions. Women making an appearance on stage included Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer (running for the U.S. Senate), as well as convention co-chair Virginia state Rep. Barbara Comstock.
Any observer would have noted the effort being made to advertise the rising of women in the GOP. And indeed, the need for such outreach could not be more glaring. The gender gap, a factor in presidential elections for decades, became starkly dispositive in 2008. Among men, John McCain and Barack Obama were essentially tied. But among women, the advantage for the Democrat was about 12 percentage points, a crushing blow given that more women voted than men.
This summer, some polls show Romney clearly leading among men but Obama once again leading by double digits among women. And unless the increasing propensity of women to outvote their male counterparts is reversed, this is an edge that could once again determine the outcome.
Republicans have, of course, tried to emphasize female voters before, if not quite so obviously as they are doing here. But the ever greater numbers of women in the delegations and onstage, and even the inclusion of Palin on the ticket in 2008, have not been enough to reverse the trend.
One reason may be the party's commitments on certain issues of special concern to many women. Among these is abortion, which has become a partisan dividing line. This year's Republican platform once again supports the Human Life Amendment, which gives constitutional protections to fetuses. Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan has also supported "personhood legislation" to establish the legal definition of life as beginning at fertilization, which would arguably outlaw not only abortion but some forms of contraception.
There is not really a debate in the GOP anymore about abortion. But this year the platform committee's work has had greater visibility, in part because of Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri making televised remarks about "legitimate rape."
The platform committee's chairman, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, has also been a lightning rod on the issue. Last year he supported a proposed state law that would require an invasive ultrasound before a woman could have an abortion. McDonnell later withdrew his support for that language, but not before it had attracted national publicity at a time when he was being mentioned for vice president himself.
When speaking to the full convention, McDonnell did not mention the abortion issue. And other speakers rarely did in Tuesday's speeches. Only Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who was among Romney's rivals for the 2012 nomination, paid extensive attention to abortion or gay marriage. The latter issue is another on which women's views are moderating faster than men's. And, largely for that reason, it is not expected to have nearly the salience it has had in Republican campaigns over the past few cycles.