WASHINGTON — Forget binders. Christi-Marie Butler is worried about labels.

The 33-year-old nonprofit fundraiser from Manitou Springs, Colo., said she is undecided in the presidential race, and the fallout over Mitt Romney’s debate comment that he consulted “binders full of women” to choose his Massachusetts Cabinet isn’t helping.

“I hate that we’re pulling women’s issues out of the country’s issues,” said Butler, a registered Republican who voted for President Obama four years ago. “All of the sudden I’m part of this group, and I thought I was really an American.”

With less than three weeks to go until Election Day, women voters have returned to center stage, even as Butler and others see the “binders” flap as a sideshow to more important issues. Both candidates, each of whom has women in top advisory positions and roughly comparable records for hiring them, have new television advertisements to woo female voters that focus on abortion rights in a race that appears to be a toss-up, according to recent polls.

Obama, whose support among women has slipped compared with his double-digit advantage in the 2008 election, seized on the “binders” remark, dropping it into stump speeches, email pitches to voters and on social-media sites, as evidence that Romney is out of touch with women. His campaign website now prominently displays an equal sign that takes visitors to a page about “women’s issues,” such as equal pay, birth control and abortion.

The tactic is working on Kathy Whittington of Great Falls, Va. Romney “has a superior attitude,” said the 54-year-old paralegal. “Obama holds women much more as equals.”

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has pulled even with Obama among women voters, according to recent polls by USA Today/Gallup and the Pew Research Center. His chances of winning improve if he can maintain that parity or keep any Obama advantage to a minimum. In 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain, then the Republican Party nominee, lost the women’s vote to Obama by 13 percentage points.


Preserving his inroads with women explains why Romney’s campaign went on offense as the Oct. 16 debate in Hempstead, N.Y., ended. The campaign quickly dispatched Romney’s former lieutenant governor, Kerry Healy, to talk about how the former governor “believes that we can do any job a man can do.”

On Oct. 17, Romney’s campaign posted a 30-second ad online featuring three female cabinet members from his 2003-2007 tenure as Massachusetts governor. The spot opens with Jane Edmonds, former secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development, praising her onetime boss’s “humanity.”

Next, Beth Lindstrom, former director of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, says Romney was “very, very sensitive” about helping single, working mothers.

In other ads and in campaign remarks, Romney has argued that women, like all voters this year, want to focus on the economy. That resonates with Kim Dixon of Tallahassee, Fla., who said the national debt was her top issue. A 41-year-old financial adviser, mother of two and Republican voter, she said women are making tough financial decisions for their families, and the federal government should do the same with the budget.

“When Mitt Romney said the debt was a moral issue, I couldn’t agree more,” Dixon said.

Thursday, Obama’s campaign released a TV ad to answer one that Romney began airing a day earlier. Both focus on abortion and are airing in Virginia.

In the Romney ad, a woman says she’d researched “extreme” claims that Romney would ban all abortions and contraception and found those statements to be untrue.


Obama’s new ad opens with a clip of the Romney ad. “Seen this from Mitt Romney?” a female narrator asks. “Then take a look at this.” An edited clip of Romney speaking at a 2007 Republican primary debate in which CNN’s Anderson Cooper asks Romney, “If Roe v. Wade was overturned, Congress passed a federal ban on all abortions, would you sign it, yes or no?”

“Let me say it, I would be delighted to sign that bill,” Romney says. The full exchange from that debate — edited out of the Obama ad — shows Romney going on to say “that’s not where we are. That’s not where America is today.” He advocates for returning abortion to the authority of the states.

When it comes to the business of running their campaigns, both presidential candidates have women in high-level positions.


Obama has relied on Valerie Jarrett as a top-level adviser in both of his campaigns. Other women at the top include Stephanie Cutter and Julianna Smoot as deputy campaign managers.

Women also are throughout Romney’s Boston campaign headquarters. Beth Myers, who was the Massachusetts chief of staff he referred to at the Oct. 16 debate, ran his 2008 campaign and is a senior adviser in this year’s operation. A close confidante to Romney, Myers led one of the most consequential elements of his bid: choosing a vice presidential running mate.

Other women in the top echelons of his campaign include communications director Gail Gitcho and press secretary Andrea Saul.

Five of the Obama administration’s 15 Cabinet departments are headed by women, a rate of 33 percent. That compares with four women cabinet heads in President George W. Bush’s second term. He had three during his first four years.

Under Obama, almost half of the 468-members of the White House staff is female, according to a list of employees submitted in a report to Congress this year.

“Many of the president’s most important agenda items are implemented by women cabinet secretaries,” said Jamie Smith, a White House spokeswoman. “The president’s two Supreme Court nominees are both extraordinary women, and within the White House women make up half the staff and serve in key leadership roles across the board.”

From the start, the administration was sensitive to its image regarding placing women in top spots. The same day The New York Times published an Oct. 24, 2009, story headlined “Man’s World at White House? No Harm, No Foul, Aides Say,” Obama welcomed a woman for the first time to his golfing foursome: then-domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes.

Other than that day where women hit the links with the president, officials Thursday pointed to an Oct. 17, 2010, foursome that included Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.


While Romney sought to hire and appoint women as Massachusetts governor, a Boston-based coalition of women’s groups, MassGAP, said that it — not Romney — produced the binder of resumes for female Cabinet-level candidates.

A 2007 study of the more than 130 senior-level positions controlled by the governor’s office in Massachusetts found that, of the first 33 appointments Romney made after taking office in January 2003, 14 were women, or 42 percent.

From 2004 to the end of 2006, that rate declined to 25 percent, 16 women amid 64 appointments, according to the study, conducted by the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Massachusetts received national recognition for the number of women Romney initially appointed to senior roles in his administration, said Carol Hardy-Fanta, a senior researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston who wrote the report.

“At the very beginning he did make this really big effort,” said Hardy-Fanta, 64, who used to run the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy. Once pressure eased from women’s groups, “it declined.”

Rita Baban, 72, of Falls Church, Va., said that although Obama’s support of abortion rights strikes a chord with her, she is leaning toward Romney because she views the president as “in over his head.”

That doesn’t mean Baban wasn’t miffed by Romney’s binder comment. “Common sense tells you he shouldn’t need a binder,” she said. “The women are out there. Nice try, Mr. Romney, but no gold star, no teddy bear for you.”

— With assistance from Jennifer Oldham in Denver, Michael C. Bender in Tallahassee, Fla., Michael McDonald in Boston and Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Julianna Goldman in Washington.


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