The president's sudden slide among women after that revealed just how fluid their support truly was -- and it's forced Obama and his Democratic allies to spend the final days of the campaign fortifying what had appeared to be an indestructible female firewall.
To win reelection, Obama needs big margins among women. But a spate of national polls, and even some battleground state surveys, shows his robust leads have slipped away. The challenges after the first debate have remained for Obama as Romney continues to reshape his candidacy with a more moderate message on foreign policy, abortion and taxes.
Nobody expects Obama to actually lose the women's vote, and many Democratic strategists argue that Obama's overwhelming lead after the conventions and at the height of the contraception battles last spring was never sustainable. But Obama's new vulnerability among female voters gives fresh urgency to the latest war-on-women attacks, sparked by Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's comments about pregnancy and rape.
"I was surprised women would be as open to Romney as they were [after the first debate], and it was a warning to all of us," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who specializes in framing issues to women voters. "The warning was that women had not written Romney off, and we had to speak to them and draw clear contrasts until the last day of the campaign."
That's why the Mourdock controversy came at just the right time for Obama, giving him a late-in-the-game opportunity to recast Romney as an extremist on women's issues.
Democrats down the line -- from Obama himself to the Democratic National Committee, lawmakers and women's groups -- and even some Republicans, including 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain, condemned the Mourdock remark that pregnancy is intended by God even when caused by rape.
"I don't know how these guys come up with these ideas," Obama said Wednesday on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.""Let me make a very simple proposition: Rape is rape. It is a crime. And so these various distinctions about rape don't make too much sense to me -- don't make any sense to me."
Romney endorsed Mourdock in a TV ad this week -- and has stood by the commercial -- although a Romney spokeswoman said the governor disagreed with the comment.
But that didn't stop Democrats from launching the all-out assault, mindful that statements like the one Mourdock made have been very effective in swinging women back into their camp.
"Any time that there is focus on these issues, ... I think [they] are not helpful to them with women voters or male voters who care about women's health," a senior administration official said Wednesday. "Generally, this concerns people because it raises the specter of what a President Romney with Republicans in Congress could do on these issues of women's health."
Obama appeared to forget that strategy in the first debate.
Neither he nor Romney even mentioned the word "women" despite a relentless focus on female voters through the Democratic Party convention. More damaging was the way Obama came across -- lifeless, bored, meek -- compared with Romney, who looked and sounded nothing like the elite, "severely conservative" candidate portrayed in attack ads.
"Women turned on the TV and saw a Romney that defied the caricature and the impression they had of him," said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who specializes in the women's vote. "And in the matter of a split screen, saw two men they didn't know existed: Romney as accessible, knowledgeable and plausible, and a President Obama who is everything they didn't believe him to be -- disengaged and not focused."
There's no disputing the trend line nationally after that debate. Almost every major survey -- POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Pew Research Center, Fox News, USA Today/Gallup, Monmouth University/Survey USA/Braun -- showed a tightening margin, with some claiming Romney and Obama are tied. Obama won women by 13 percentage points in 2008.
One exception to the overall trend is the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, which found Obama with a 15-point lead among women, up from 7 points two weeks ago. It came out Wednesday, the same day an Associated Press/GfK showed Romney and Obama neck and neck among women and men.
"Look, any poll that shows us tied with women and with men in this country is not a poll that we are placing bets on in Vegas," Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday.
The swing-state polls, which are more relevant than the national numbers at this point, are all over the map.
Senior Obama advisers told POLITICO on Friday that the president has a "strong, double-digit" lead among female voters in battleground states such as Ohio.
In several public polls of that all-important swing state, he's increased his lead and remains well ahead of his 2008 margin of 8 percent. His advantage among women has also held steady in Iowa, Virginia and Wisconsin from September to mid-October, according to data compiled by Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics.
But in Florida, which looks increasingly difficult for Obama, multiple polls show him carrying women by only a few points, a major swing from a month ago when he was up by double digits. And several polls in Nevada, Colorado and New Hampshire show a slimmer margin after the first debate. The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll released Thursday found Obama's double-digit leads last month in Colorado and Nevada had dipped to 7 points and 6 points, respectively.
By the time the second debate rolled around -- after two weeks during which the female vote margin narrowed -- Obama and Romney sparred over pay equity, birth control and health care in a bid for their support. Romney's reference to "binders full of women" became an immediate point of ridicule for the Obama campaign, highlighted on the stump for days.
The third debate focused on foreign affairs, but each candidate tripped over the other to appeal to women. Aware that female voters respond negatively to war threats, Romney offered himself as the peace candidate. He soft-pedaled his calls for a tough line on Iran and criticized Obama for trying to "kill our way out this mess." Both talked up international women's rights. And they tried whenever they could to return the discussion to "nation building" at home.
The female focus is evident on the TV airwaves, too, where the campaigns and outside interest groups are dueling over abortion, birth control and Planned Parenthood. The Obama campaign put up a TV ad Wednesday contrasting Romney's more moderate remarks in recent weeks on abortion with earlier statements supporting a reversal of Roe v. Wade. It's running in the battlegrounds of Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, Florida and Virginia.
And the Obama campaign's focus on Mourdock the past two days underscores the intense push for the female vote.
Early Wednesday, Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One, without any prompting, that the president found the comments "outrageous and demeaning to women." Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards, speaking on a call arranged by the DNC, said the statement should remind voters "how extreme this nominee for president is." Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter used the remarks to raise money, blasting an email to the campaign's female supporters.
Obama kept at it in an "NBC Nightly News" interview that aired Thursday, saying that "what these episodes point to is the fact that you don't want politicians, the majority of them male, making a series of decisions about women's health care issues."
"The natural contraction of some of these things shouldn't be seen as anything but normal," Brad Woodhouse, DNC communications director, said of the polls. "The president has a strong lead over Mitt Romney with women, and given this latest episode [with Mourdock], this has every likelihood to increase."
Obama aides said they always expected to close out the campaign with a strong focus on women.
But the heightened attention can't be separated from the polls -- and that fateful first debate.
"The first debate caught a lot of political observers off guard with the extent to which the electorate swung," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "This should be worrisome to Barack Obama's campaign because this is a group that they counted on having a healthy majority with."
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.