If there was any doubt whose votes President Obama and Mitt Romney covet in the election's homestretch, their post-debate scramble to win over women put that question to rest.
Both White House contenders on Wednesday sought to showcase their commitment to women in battleground states, a nod to the likelihood that female voters will probably crown the presidential winner in less than three weeks.
The importance of the traditionally Democratic-leaning voting bloc came into sharp relief in the second presidential debate Tuesday, when both Obama and Romney made overt appeals on issues of concern to women, from pay equity to abortion rights.
That continued Wednesday on the campaign trail, when Obama, appearing in Iowa, painted Romney as out of touch with working women and mocked the Republican's debate claim that he considered "binders full of women" for administration jobs while governor of Massachusetts.
"I've gotta tell you, we don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women, ready to learn and teach in these fields right now," Obama said, donning a pink breast cancer awareness bracelet.
Romney's binder remark went viral on the Internet before Tuesday's debate even ended. By Wednesday morning, a Democratic group had launched the website bindersfullofwomen.com to criticize Romney on women's issues. The Obama campaign posted its own paid advertisement on Twitter mocking the phrase.
Some analysts said Romney's performance Tuesday may have weakened his support among women. Prior to the debate, polls showed Romney and Obama virtually even among female voters, a group with which Obama once had a substantial edge. Four years ago, women preferred Obama to Republican John McCain by a 13-percentage-point margin.
"That whole soliloquy he had about the women he hired seemed to position him somewhat in the past from the standpoint that we'd like to think we've moved beyond the question of whether there are qualified women for the job," said Linda P. Schacht, a press official in former President Jimmy Carter's White House who now teaches political communications at Lipscomb University.
Romney is betting that his economic message will resonate with women and that Democrats' attempts to focus on contraceptives and abortion will backfire.
"This president has failed America's women," Romney said Wednesday in Chesapeake, Va. "They've suffered in terms of getting jobs. They've suffered in terms of falling into poverty."
At the same time, Romney is trying to soften his image with female voters, particularly suburban women. He released a television ad Wednesday in which a woman declares that Romney doesn't oppose contraception and would allow abortions in cases of rape, incest and when the health of the mother is threatened.
In Ohio, Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, appeared with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to focus on how Obama's first-term policies had failed to bolster the job market for women, a theme Romney and conservatives have hit repeatedly.
"We have a president that insists he wants to help middle-income families, yet middle income has dropped over $4,000 annually," said Marianne Gasiecki, Ohio state coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. "We have a president who says he champions women, yet there are millions more women living in poverty than when he took office. What excuses would he have for the next four years?"