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Joan Vennochi

Romney’s woman problem

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / August 11, 2011

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NASHUA CAN THE new business-casual Mitt Romney lure women voters and still keep the bromance going with guys?

At Monday night’s town hall here, Romney’s overall message - that leadership is AWOL under President Obama - was warmly received. But even in this friendly, standing-room-only crowd, the candidate now considered the Republican presidential front-runner had to negotiate that vexing old Mars-vs.-Venus divide. At least at this event, the questions broke down along stereotypical gender lines.

Declaring himself an ardent Tea Party Republican, one man told Romney, “I hate compromise . . . There’s nothing in the middle of the road except yellow stripes and road kill.’’ Other men pushed Romney on illegal immigration, whether RomneyCare in Massachusetts is any different from the detested ObamaCare, and whether he’s tough enough to win in Dixie.

Women presented different concerns: How does Romney plan to keep Social Security solvent? Would he support a strong Environmental Protection Agency and enforce air quality regulations that protect people with asthma?

How women vote stands to be a big factor in the election. Polling shows Obama with a huge margin among female voters, even as his overall support declines. If Romney wins the GOP nomination, as many predict, his historic weak spot with women voters is something he must overcome. It won’t be easy.

Romney’s problem began in Massachusetts with a confusing message on abortion rights when he challenged Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Before his 2008 presidential run, Romney declared himself pro-life. But a record of conflicting statements undercut his credibility with both sides of the abortion-rights debate. For the 2012 campaign, Romney is reinforcing his conservative positions by choosing Robert Bork to co-chair his legal policy team. Bork is remembered mainly for his failed bid to become a Supreme Court justice, after a contentious nomination fight that focused on his right-wing positions.

Shoving aside fellow Republican and acting Governor Jane Swift in order to run in 2002 also didn’t help Romney with female voters. Romney won male voters by 13 points and, with them, the governor’s race. But he lost women voters by four.

The gender issue followed him onto the national campaign trail. In the days leading up to the 2008 New Hampshire primary, polls showed Romney and chief rival John McCain splitting the female vote. On primary day, McCain did slightly better with women and won.

On the Republican side, Romney is polling better with women voters these days. But Michele Bachmann’s entry into the contest complicates the primary race for him. So far, the softer, gentler Romney - with the longer, ungelled hair - is opting not to criticize Bachmann.

There are several reasons for that. Obama is Romney’s chief target. But he also doesn’t want to offend women or Tea Party voters who support Bachmann - a calculation that puts him in a difficult place. As Bachmann and the Tea Party push Republicans like Romney to the right during the primary season, the general electorate - and its critical mass of more moderate female voters - await the eventual GOP nominee. Texas Governor Rick Perry, another Tea Party favorite, also looms as a potential GOP primary rival.

And so, he walks the line in New Hampshire. To the Tea Party guy who hates compromise he quipped “good’’ and then pledged fealty to a balanced budget amendment. But he also recounted his days as Massachusetts governor and his ability to compromise with Democrats who dominated the Legislature: “I didn’t bash them every day. I wasn’t abusive of them.’’

He promised to compete in Southern contests that are traditionally hijacked by evangelicals and other ultra-conservatives. He’s also in favor of good air quality but didn’t make any serious EPA commitments. On Social Security, his main theme was there was no need to worry if you’re retired or near retirement.

For Romney, the image of being tieless and tough, but also sensitive, is the way to a woman’s heart. He has to hope it’s not a turn-off for men.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.