Ryan targeted on women's issues
Paul Ryan co-sponsored a federal "personhood" amendment. He voted to defund Planned Parenthood. He opposes all abortions, except when the life of the mother is at risk. And he supports a federal bill requiring women to get an ultrasound before an abortion.
If this sounds like an ominous ad from the Obama for president campaign, something like it could soon be coming to a TV near you. These are among the positions the Wisconsin congressman has taken in his career that Democrats are bound to highlight in the weeks ahead in ads, press conferences and rallies as they try to widen President Barack Obama's lead among women over Mitt Romney in polls.
Picked just a week ago as his vice presidential contender, Ryan is poised to become a key part of that strategy for both the Obama campaign and women's groups hoping to energize their voters and those who might have been considering Romney.
For all the attention on how his budget roadmap changes Medicare, Democrats see Ryan's record on issues related to women as an opportunity to yoke Romney, who has flip-flopped on abortion rights in the past decade, to positions the presumptive GOP nominee staked out during the Republican primaries.
The initial tweets from the @BarackObama account last weekend, after Ryan was selected, were 140-character frames on Ryan's record on women.
And the campaign's first purely negative ad about the new GOP running mate was not on Medicare, but on abortion rights and Planned Parenthood.
"These are really extreme positions that are far to the right of most Americans," said Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. "They're also quite consistent with, frankly, Mitt Romney's positions. This ticket is far to the right of most Americans."
"Though it was clear before, think it's clearer now," said EMILY's List spokesman Jess McIntosh. "Honestly, I think the Ryan budget -- the idea of cavalierly ending Medicare as we know it and paying for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires -- couldn't possibly make things any clearer for women who are going to make this decision. Honestly, Romney has been trying so hard not to take any positions that Ryan makes it hard for him to do that."
At NARAL, the abortion rights advocacy group, Political Director Beth Shipp said the group has been building a battleground state model to identify "Obama defectors" across the country who may be looking at Romney as a moderate who can improve the economy.
"We can now not only remind people how good Obama has been -- but how bad Romney-Ryan will be. It's a full court press," Shipp said. "There [are] actually two types [of] persuadables: defectors and turnouts. We're confident we can reach both once women become familiar with Paul Ryan's views on choice and reproductive rights."
Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg dismissed the criticisms.
"This is a desperate attempt by President Obama's allies to distract from his failed economic policies, which have been particularly devastating to women," she said. "Hundreds of thousands of women have lost their jobs, poverty among women is highest in nearly two decades, and half of recent graduates can't find a good job. Middle-class families have struggled in the Obama economy, and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have a plan to strengthen the middle class and get our country back on the right track."
Since the race began, Romney has faced a gender gap in almost every poll, losing among women in one poll by more than 20 points in Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to a Quinnipiac/CBS/New York Times survey of swing states earlier this month. Women made up more than half the electorate in the last national election. But that gap has generally been offset by the fact that the Republican is leading handily among men.
Still, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake argued: "This helps motivate unmarried women out to vote. I think it hurts [Romney] with senior women and pre-retirement women. Because [for] these older baby boomer women it's a two-fer, right? They think [Medicare] may not be there when [they] get there. And they also are very loyal to Planned Parenthood [having come of age in the '60s]. It's not a hypothetical situation for them."
Romney has been viewed with suspicion by social conservatives, having modulated his stand on abortion rights since his 2002 gubernatorial run. He has sought to allay those concerns, while also hoping to avoid taking stands on issues like "personhood" -- which would define the beginning of life as the moment of fertilization -- saying such decisions are up to the states.
Romney has advocated ending federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and some of his rhetoric from the primaries -- when he ran against 1990s culture warrior Rick Santorum -- has made its way into Obama ads. The toughest spot on this topic so far features women declaring -- in reference to Romney's comments on abortion and Planned Parenthood -- "This isn't the 1950s," part of Chicago's effort to paint Romney as a throwback.
Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a nationwide network of more than 100,000 members and donors, said the group has more than $2 million to spend on a voter education project in conjunction with the National Organization for Women. She sees the Ryan budget taking center stage.
"What we have found is that the only thing some women know about Mitt Romney is that he was the governor of Massachusetts and so they think, 'How conservative can he be?' said Maatz. "Well the selection of Ryan crystallizes who Romney is -- and allows us to draw a sharp contrast for women."
Ryan's co-sponsorship of a "personhood" bill is among the positions that Democrats are likely to highlight in the fall.
So too is his support of a bill to require a woman to have an ultrasound and see the in-utero picture of the fetus before an abortion. The bill, introduced by conservative Rep. Jim Jordan, differs significantly from the controversial Virginia bill in that a transvaginal probe isn't involved.
But the chances are high that that distinction will be lost as Ryan's vote record is highlighted in the coming months.
Ryan, a Catholic, has eschewed the social issues "truce" once advocated by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. He's been clear and consistent on issues like abortion rights since he was elected to Congress, earning him praise from conservatives -- who say their own base is energized by the presence of a mild-looking former altar boy on the ticket, and believe Democrats are misreading the issue.
Democratic attacks on Ryan "won't work because, in spite of the best efforts by Democrats, this election is about a different war on women -- namely an economic war in which women have suffered more, lost more jobs, and have higher unemployment and more lost income than men in this weak economy," said Faith and Freedom Coalition head Ralph Reed.
"No attempt to change the subject from the economy will work among swing women voters. And even the use of moral issues cuts both ways. Their effort to portray Paul Ryan in an unflattering light because of his strong pro-life stance will also help the GOP ticket with Catholics and evangelicals, the majority of whom are women voters."
Unlike Romney, Ryan is someone conservatives have related to for years, and they have moved swiftly to defend him.
"Women are not monolithic," said Penny Nance, head of Concerned Women for America. "Often you hear people saying, 'Women think X' ... We know there's about 60 million regular church-attending Catholic and evangelical women in this country and most of them agree with Paul Ryan."
"I think they assume women only care about those issues, which is not true. Women are most concerned about the economy," agreed Republican strategist Greg Mueller.
Mueller argued that Obama's health-care overhaul and position on other federal funding that covers contraception and abortion rights are a turn-off to Catholics broadly, and to Hispanic evangelicals and religious African-American voters. "When you start talking about taxpayer funding of abortion, it's like a 70-plus issue for us [in polls]."
The Catholic vote will be key and is part of why Ryan helps the campaign refocus on the Midwest, amid concerns from Republicans outside Romney's headquarters about what the new ticket means with Florida seniors.
John Brabender, Santorum's chief strategist, indirectly pointed to the difference between how the former Pennsylvania senator was depicted in the primaries -- angry and defensive -- and how Ryan is likely to seem to voters.
"The one thing I will say where I think Ryan is a little bit unique, and why he's such a good messenger, is I think his tone and temperament comes through as a young man who is honest and himself," Brabender said. "Of all the Republicans I've seen yet that can explain themselves, I do think Paul Ryan has a believability and an 'aw shucks' sincerity that makes him very credible when he does talk."
That is the belief among some Republicans in terms of how to fight the Medicare battle to a draw -- that Ryan, with his staid demeanor and youthfulness, will be tougher to paint as the face of "scary" policy prescriptions to women and seniors.
Yet Democrats are hoping to tether Ryan's positions on issues like abortion rights to a broader theme of his stands on issues like Medicaid cuts, Pell Grants and others. Education is a major topic with suburban women, pollsters on both sides say.
"I think he is very, very harshly anti-woman," said Terry O'Neill, president of NOW. "And I think it's important for women voters to really look at the disproportionate effect on women of the thing he takes the most credit for. He's very proud of the Ryan budget. It slams women by privatizing Medicare. Ryan opposes equal pay for equal work. That is very specifically anti-woman. ... He is attacking the economic security of women -- and at the same time he is systematically singling out women's health care for restrictions."
McIntosh, of EMILY's List, made a similar point: "Really it's cradle to grave, Ryan is working against the programs that allow women to keep themselves and their families healthy. We're talking about everything from access to basic health care to equal pay to Medicare. ... We're not just offering someone who is doing no harm compared with someone who's absolutely committed to rolling back the clock. The president has an excellent record on women's issues."
GOP strategist Mueller argued that most people don't understand what's in Obama's health care plan -- which was a major flashpoint among Catholic voters last year -- and that the Republican pushback on all these issues will be equally important.
That's been a major fixture of the last week, as Romney's campaign has sought to push an offense on the Medicare attacks by making it about Obama's health care law and what it contains.
"Right now, if you're an independent, you want (the president) to fix things," he said. "Even if you don't agree with everything in Paul Ryan's budget, what's the Democrat plan, more spending?"