RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — You've come a long way, baby.
A century ago, your mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers in Virginia and most of their sisters across America were still eight years from the right to vote.
This year, the presidential and Senate election in battleground Virginia not only involves you, ladies, it's all about you.
Both parties will spend millions courting you because whoever wins your favor likely wins Virginia and, quite possibly, the election.
A June Quinnipiac University poll shows President Barack Obama leading Republican Mitt Romney narrowly in Virginia largely on the strength of a 16 percentage point lead among women.
Both sides are airing ads aimed clearly at women voters statewide.
Obama began blanketing Virginia last week with new ads that marry the two most potent issues on the minds of female voters: the sluggish economy and gender equity.
"President Obama knows that women being paid 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men isn't just unfair, it hurts families," the ad's female narrator says before noting that the first bill he signed as president was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Republicans are parrying. George Allen, a former governor running to win back the U.S. Senate seat he lost in 2006, rolled out an upbeat ad last week featuring favorable testimonials from women about him.
"President Obama depends entirely on a large majority of women to win a second term. It's going to be split pretty much down the middle because Romney is going to win a majority of the men's votes," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"But winning with women is important because they comprise 52 (percent) or 53 percent of the registered voters in Virginia," he said.
Romney in particular and, by association, Allen have to trim the Democrats' lead among women to win a state that not only is critical to the electoral vote map in the presidential race, but could also determine which party has a Senate majority.
In few states is the gender gap as pronounced as in the Old Dominion thanks to this year's most polarizing and partisan legislative issue: a new law that requires women not only to undergo pre-abortion ultrasound exams but also pay the costs of it.
With socially conservative GOP majorities ruling both the House of Delegates and Senate this year, the measure was muscled to passage. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, a possible Romney vice-presidential pick, signed it into law. It takes effect July 1.
In its original form, the bill mandated a vaginally invasive form of the ultrasound exam. It was ridiculed by late-night television comedians, NBC's "Saturday Night Live," and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." It also infuriated women across the political spectrum, provoking large protests on Capitol Square that culminated in March with 30 arrests on the Capitol's south portico.
Stung by the ridicule, McDonnell persuaded legislative Republicans to revise the bill and require only an external abdominal ultrasound. Democratic amendments that would have required insurance companies to cover the procedure or the state to cover its costs for uninsured women failed.
The ultrasound battle dropped McDonnell's job-approval rating from 62 percent in Quinnipiac's October poll to 53 percent in March. The same survey found that 52 percent disapproved of the new law, and 72 percent said government should not pass laws to persuade women seeking abortions to change their minds. Quinnipiac surveyed 1,034 registered voters in mid-March, and the poll's margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
"As a Republican female, I am extraordinarily disappointed in my party's recent decision-making and if they are going to have a chance with the female population, Republicans are going to have to adopt a more moderate approach to social issues," said Eone Moore Beck, a suburban Richmond attorney and mother of three young sons who, a dozen years ago, worked for Republican former Attorney General Mark L. Earley.
Beck joined the Women's Strike Force, a new political action committee organized to defeat legislators who supported the ultrasound law or another bill that would have attached full rights of personhood to a human embryo from the instant of conception. Del. Robert G. Marshall's bill, postponed to the 2013 session, could outlaw all abortions in Virginia if the Supreme Court's 1972 ruling legalizing abortion is reversed.
"They are completely disenfranchising all of the moderate voters," Beck said.
Democrats sensed the vulnerability. Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, served notice early that the ultrasound and "personhood" battles would become part of a Democratic "war on women" narrative against Romney, Allen and the GOP.
The GOP's best antidote is the economy. A pronounced downturn that sends the stock market plunging and unemployment surging could push social issues into the background and make voters clamor for change, Sabato said.
Polly Franks, who is independent, undecided and unemployed, said she's aware of the social issues, but said they alone won't determine her vote.
"The economy, to me, is first and foremost," Franks said. "People feel sort of threatened. The economy has the most immediate impact, it hits more people."
Crossroads GPS, a pro-Republican nonprofit group led by former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove, weaves the issue into an appeal compelling to women. The 30-second spot playing heavily in Virginia and other battleground states dramatizes the issue by depicting a young mother aged by special effects in the blink of an eye into a graying matron whose twenty-something children can't find jobs and live with her.
Bob Lewis had covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.
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