HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney faced off in a heated presidential debate Tuesday night, clashing on everything from domestic energy production to the terrorist attacks on U.S. diplomats in Libya. But the most important question of the night was arguably the one that centered around the candidates’ positions on equal pay for women.
The question gave both candidates an opportunity to make a direct appeal to undecided female voters, a key voter demographic that could determine the outcome of the presidential election. Until recently, Obama held a huge advantage over his opponent with this demographic, leading Romney by double-digits in several polls. But Romney has closed the gender gap in recent weeks, and appears to have erased the president’s advantage with women, nationally and in several key swing states.
Going into Tuesday’s debate, both candidates’ were looking for a shot at making their case to these female voters, with the hopes of solidifying an advantage in the 2012 race. On the question of equal pay, each candidate tried to portray himself as friendlier to woman, with Obama touting his support for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Romney boasting about making a concerted effort to hire women during his time as governor of Massachusetts.
“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks?” Romney told the audience, in one of the more surprising spontaneous moments of the debate. “And [they] brought us whole binders full of — of women.”
Watch their full responses below:
In the spin room following the debate, both campaigns tried to cast their candidate as having won the battle for women.
“The gender gap is already open and it will continue to be opened as women focus on these issues,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told Business Insider. “Tonight on Lilly Ledbetter, Romney had no position; on contraception, he was fundamentally dishonest. He had to stay on the defence the entire night. What you saw was a rattled Romney….That’s what American voters saw tonight, that’s what women voters saw tonight.”
Top Romney strategist Eric Ferhnstrom had the opposite perception. Asked whether he thought Romney had made an effective case to female voters, Fehrnstrom told Business Insider that he was happy with Romney’s performance in that regard.
“He was able to talk about what he did as governor,” Fehrnstrom said. “I think the personal actions of a chief executive like Romney speak volumes.”
But on whether the campaign had OK’ed the term “binders full of women,” Fehrnstrom clarified:
“He was talking about resumes,” he said, trying not to laugh.
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