CINCINNATI (AP) — President Barack Obama seized on a Republican Senate candidate's remark about rape and pregnancy in an attempt to shore up his support among women, as polls suggest the president is losing his advantage in that key constituency.
Obama intensified pressure on challenger Mitt Romney on Thursday to break ties with Richard Mourdock over the Indiana Senate candidate's comment that if a woman becomes pregnant from rape it is "something God intended." Obama aides used a web video to highlight Romney's endorsement of Mourdock and to accuse him of kowtowing to his party's extreme elements.
Mourdock's remark again brought the divisive issue of abortion to the forefront of the U.S. presidential campaign, distracting from the economic issues Romney has been trying to focus on in the last days before the Nov. 6 election.
For the Obama camp, it offered another chance to highlight its differences with the Republican ticket on abortion. The president had long enjoyed an edge among women votes, but a recent AP-GfK poll found Romney erasing the president's 16-point advantage among female likely voters.
Obama advisers insist they've lost no ground with women. But their eagerness to highlight Romney's connections to Mourdock indicated some degree of nervousness within the campaign.
The president, who supports abortion rights, also made repeated, though indirect, references to Mourdock's controversial comment.
"We've seen again this week, I don't think any male politicians should be making health care decisions for women," Obama told a crowd of about 15,000 in Richmond, Virginia.
The candidates are running in a virtual dead heat ahead of the Nov. 6 election and a significant lead among women voters could easily tip the balance.
Romney, who appears in a television advertisement declaring his support for Mourdock, brushed aside questions on the emotional controversy from reporters throughout the day.
A day earlier, he disavowed Mourdock's comments, although his campaign said Romney continues to support the Indiana Republican's Senate candidacy. Romney opposes abortion but unlike Mourdock, supports exceptions in the case of rape.
Opinion polls show Obama and Romney tied nationally. A new Associated Press-GfK poll of likely voters had Romney up 47 percent to 45 percent, a result within the poll's margin of sampling error.
But because the U.S. presidential race is not decided by popular vote but rather on a state-by-state basis, the election will hinge on nine or so competitive states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado.
Less than two weeks from Election Day, both candidates feverishly campaigned across the country.
Obama, wrapping up a 40-hour battleground state blitz, was heading for his hometown of Chicago to cast his ballot 12 days before Election Day. The stopover was more than a photo opportunity — it was a high-profile attempt to boost turnout in early voting, a centerpiece of Obama's strategy.
"I'm told I'll be the first sitting president to take advantage of early voting," Obama said in an email to supporters, urging them to cast their votes before Nov. 6.
Obama advisers have identified at least three viable options. Winning Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin would put him over the top, as would wins in Ohio, Iowa and Nevada. A five-state combination of Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado would also seal the deal for the president's re-election.
Romney's team has yet to publicly outline any specific pathway to victory. Without a win in Ohio, however, the Republican nominee would have to sweep every other competitive state.
That reality was the motivation behind Romney's daylong swing through three Ohio cities Thursday. Obama was to finish his day in Ohio, too, the final stop on his marathon, two-day drive for votes.
An upbeat Romney proclaimed his campaign has the momentum heading into Election Day. But there are signs in Ohio, as well as Virginia, that his surge following the first debate has run its course.
That reality was the motivation behind Romney's daylong swing through three Ohio cities Thursday. Obama finished his day in Ohio, too, with a 12,000-person rally on an airport tarmac — the final stop on his marathon, two-day drive for votes.
While the campaigns speed ahead, about 7.2 million people already have cast early ballots, either by mail or in person, according to the United States Elections Project at George Mason University. In all, about 35 percent of the electorate is expected to vote before Election Day. That would be a small increase over 2008.
The president's campaign also trumpeted the endorsement by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who supported Obama in 2008. Powell praised Obama's handling of the economic recovery, telling "CBS This Morning," ''I think we've begun to come out of the dive and we're gaining altitude."
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Cincinnati, Ohio, Ben Feller in Richmond, Virginia, Julie Pace and Nedra Pickler in Washington, and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.