T Zoe Soto-Gilbert faces a tough but politically essential job.
The GOP convention alternate delegate is president of Missouri Women for Mitt, a group assembled to try to overcome Mitt Romney’s stubborn polling disadvantage with women voters.
Soto-Gilbert’s group is on Facebook, and she hopes to expand beyond Missouri into other Midwestern states before Election Day.
“He’s always been an incredible supporter of women,” she said of Romney.
Making that case, however, has been difficult for the Romney campaign, and grew exponentially tougher last week after U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s inflammatory remarks about rape and abortion.
But Republicans maintain that winning the argument is critical. If Romney is to beat President Barack Obama in November, they believe, he must convince more middle-class working women to support the GOP ticket.
Half of all voters in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll said differences between the parties on women’s issues will be a major factor in their decisions at the ballot box. Asked which candidate voters trusted to do a better job on women’s issues, 53 percent picked Obama, to only 32 percent for Romney.
The same poll found the race for the presidency practically a dead heat, with Romney slightly leading Obama, 47 to 46 percent.
Meanwhile, the latest CNN poll finds Obama leading Romney among women by 54 to 42 percent, and Romney leading Obama among men 53 to 42 percent.
“There always has been a gap with women,” said Missouri GOP delegate Eric Zahnd, Platte County’s prosecutor. “We’ve got to continue to reach out to all sorts of folks, including women, and show them we’re the party of opportunity.”
Zahnd and other delegates said a crucial step comes tonight, when Ann Romney is scheduled to address the convention. If she can connect her husband with middle-class women battling low wages and high prices, they contend, the gender gap can close quickly.
“I think she gives him a chance to connect who he is with women voters across the board, in a way that nobody else does,” said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican.
But in April, Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist and cable-television pundit, declared that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life” — even though she’d raised five sons. The remark ignited a storm of criticism on social networking sites, including an unexpected defense of Romney from first lady Michelle Obama.
“Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected,” Michelle Obama wrote on Twitter.
Ann Romney issued her first tweet just a couple of hours after Rosen’s comment: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.”
Her convention speech originally was scheduled for Monday night, and Republicans were upset when the major broadcast networks said they would not carry convention coverage that day. But Tropical Storm Isaac intervened, pushing her speech to today and onto prime time television.
Hearing from candidates’ spouses is now considered an integral part of presidential campaigning. Ann Romney has talked about her battle with multiple sclerosis in several interviews, and Republicans believe she makes her husband a better campaigner.
“Any housewife who had four boys (actually five) is eligible to run logistics for World War III,” said Missouri alternate delegate Susie Barrett of Jefferson City. “When people see Ann Romney, she is terrific.”
A convention speech by a spouse can have an enormous impact. Republicans still remember Elizabeth Dole’s electrifying, Oprah-esque stroll through the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego.
Few suspect, however, that tonight’s address will resemble Elizabeth Dole’s. Still, they believe middle class working women in battleground states are the voters most susceptible to the Obama campaign’s portrait of Mitt Romney as rich and out-of-touch — a perception Ann Romney could dispel this evening.
Republicans also are quick to point out the flip side of the gender gap: Romney does better than Obama with men.
“The Romney-Ryan ticket is very focused on solutions related to the individual family,” said Amanda Adkins, chairwoman of the Kansas GOP. “The Democratic Party, in our view, is very focused on solutions that are very government-centered.”
Former Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri also rejected the importance of a significant gender gap, although he conceded the nominee hasn’t connected with all voters yet.
“All the segments of the population need to get a better sense of who Mitt Romney is,” Bond said, adding that Ann Romney can help that effort.
Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, a Missouri delegate from the St. Louis area, said the gender gap is largely a result of “unmarried women” who support Obama. “Obama makes a play for unmarried women,” she said. “He wants to make them dependent on government.”
The Obama campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Yet, young unmarried women are typically the voters most concerned with such issues as abortion, which became a focal point of controversy for the GOP last week.
That may be why Soto-Gilbert of Missouri Women for Mitt thinks it’s important to move beyond that debate — if possible — in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign.
“Those issues that he (Akin) brought up are not the issues that really, truly matter to our country right now,” she argued. “Really, the economy is more of a problem, unemployment. It sure was a distraction last week.”