TAMPA, Fla. - Mitt Romney trails President Obama significantly among female voters -- by double digits in some polls -- and it's a gap that must be closed to give the Romney-Ryan ticket a strong shot in November.

So it's no surprise that Republicans highlighted their female stars and endorsed gender equality every day of the convention.

And Mitt Romney's speech to delegates was no exception.

During his address Thursday night, Romney brought up something you don't hear him talk about much: his late mother's Senate run four decades ago.

Lenore Romney ran for the U.S. Senate in Michigan in 1970, losing to Democrat Philip Hart. Mitt Romney campaigned for his mother. He was in his early 20s at the time and it gave him a taste of retail politics, he has said in interviews.

But according to his speech, it also gave him a lesson in gender equality, an issue women who identify as independents give Democrats high marks on.

"I can still hear her saying in her beautiful voice, 'Why should women have any less say than men about the great decisions facing our nation?' " Romney told delegates.

Romney told the crowd he wished his mom were at the convention to hear the lineup of GOP female leaders, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, make forceful appeals to women to pursue big dreams.

All three women were given prime-time speaking slots at the convention, while Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Rob Portman and other male GOP luminaries were relegated to time slots with smaller audiences.

In his speech, Romney described how he put women first as Massachusetts governor. He chose a female lieutenant governor and a woman as chief of staff, he said.

And there were more implicit or explicit efforts to soften the party's image among women.

"Half of my Cabinet and senior officials were women, and in business, I mentored and supported great women leaders who went on to run great companies," Romney told the crowd.

Democrats have been pushing the theme that the GOP has declared a "war on women" for weeks, citing the party's opposition to most abortion, as well as the support Republicans have given the Catholic Church in its efforts to fight against paying for contraceptives for their employees. That pitch was made easier by Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's remarks about "legitimate rape." Romney condemned the remarks and said Akin should drop out of the race. But the damage to the GOP was done.

In a Thursday conference call with reporters, Democrats looked to cement that theme, warning that a Romney-Ryan White House would make women's lives miserable by taking away the social services they rely on.

They even included Sandra Fluke on the call. She's the Democratic operative who became a hero of the left after Rush Limbaugh mocked her congressional testimony about the need for health insurance to cover contraception. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said during the call that the GOP's policies would be "a disaster for women's economic futures."

All that has created a tough road for Romney as he tries to convince female voters he supports gender equity.

His wife, Ann, never had a formal job, and his campaign speeches are often silent about gender issues even as Democratic candidates give it prominence.

His vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan, at 42, is more believable as a pro-female Republican, if only because he is more than two decades younger than Romney. In his speech, Ryan talked about his mother's life as a small-business owner after his dad's death when she was 50.

"It transformed my mom from a widow in grief to a small-businesswoman whose happiness wasn't just in the past," Ryan said Wednesday, tearing up. "Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my mom is my role model."