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Gender gap daunting for GOP: Why women's vote is key

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The likely question for Obama, then, isn't whether he will get more women than men to vote for him, but how big the margin will be. If Obama is to win, he will need a big women's vote to offset an expected deficit in the men's vote.

"The reason the gender gap is so important is not just the difference in points between men and women, it's that there are more women than men overall, more women registered to vote, and a higher female turnout rate," says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames.

Republicans say the blowup over birth control won't harm the party's chances in November.

"I'm not making light of the fact that there was a hit to the party, but the collective damage was probably short term," says Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster. "Do I expect it to be a lingering problem that will hurt us in the fall? No, I don't. The focus will still be on the economy."

Ms. DiVall bases her assessment on recent focus groups she conducted with independent suburban women who voted for Obama in 2008 and are now undecided. For the "Wal-Mart women" – those with no college degree and household income under $50,000 – putting food on the table and gas in the tank was the top concern. For the working college graduates, having enough money for retirement was top of mind.

The birth-control issue exploded in January when the Obama administration announced a rule under health-care reform that would require religiously affiliated employers' insurance plans to cover birth control. Roman Catholic institutions balked, and Obama tweaked the mandate.

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