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WASHINGTON - Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, came to Minnesota this month with a special message for women.

"I'm not just here today as the wife of the vice president," she told a women's rally at the Depot Coffee House in Hopkins, "but as a mom, a full-time teacher, and of course, as a woman, a woman who votes."

It was an explicit appeal to women that is being heard more often in the 2012 presidential election in political ads, campaign events, and most memorably in the speeches by the candidates' wives at the national conventions for President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

Amid talk of war, jobs and looming budget deficits, the female vote has emerged as a crucial battleground in a presidential race that could be decided by several hundred thousand independent women in November -- particularly suburban women in a several key swing states in the Midwest, Colorado and Virginia.

Democrats historically have enjoyed an edge with women, who register and vote in greater numbers than men. But female voters don't vote as a bloc. In a race that could come down to a few undecided voters in November, Republicans are making concerted efforts to narrow the gender gap enough to capitalize on the advantage they retain with men, particularly older white men.

Political analysts say forget the rhetoric about the "War on Women" -- the 2012 election could be a war over women.

"Both campaigns are targeting women, and have strategic reasons to do so," said University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson, who studies women and politics.

A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll indicates a broad gender gap in the presidential race, with 55 percent of women favoring Obama, compared with 33 percent for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Asked who would do a better job of handling issues affecting women, female voters again overwhelmingly came down in favor of Obama -- 62 percent, compared with 28 percent of women who preferred Romney.

Whittling that gap explains, in part, why the Minnesota Republican Party's response to Jill Biden's visit didn't come from state party chair Pat Shortridge, the usual voice of the party. It came instead from two prominent Republican women: Kelly Fenton, the party's deputy chairwoman, and state Rep. Sarah Anderson of suburban Plymouth.

"As women, mothers and Americans," they said in a joint rebuttal, "we are not happy with the direction Obama and Biden have been taking the country."

'Dear daughter'

In a sign of how each party views its strengths, Biden and other Democratic surrogates emphasize how Obama has supported women on equal pay and access to health care, often specifically mentioning contraception.

Republicans, even in their appeals to women, stick to Romney's focus on the economy. His newly released television ad, called "Dear Daughter," shows a mother and her infant daughter while a woman's voice notes that the little girl's share of the debt is $50,000. "Obama's policies are making it harder on women," she intones. That ad comes in the wake of the Obama campaign's "Life of Julia," an Internet slideshow on how government initiatives aid the hypothetical Julia at every stage of her life, from kindergarten to retirement.

At the parties' national conventions, the spouses of both candidates gave prime-time addresses aimed directly at women.

"You know what it's like to work a little harder during the day to earn the respect you deserve at work and then come home to help with that book report which just has to be done," said Ann Romney, shortly before calling out, "I love you women!"

Michelle Obama, who frequently reflects on her husband's upbringing with a single mother and a grandmother who encountered a "glass ceiling," took to the convention podium to declare herself the nation's "mom-in-chief."

Numerical advantage

The aggressive targeting of women this year is no surprise when campaign strategists run the numbers. In 2008, nearly 10 million more women voted than men. Exit polls showed Obama won female voters by 12 percentage points.

A Gallup poll in August showed a continuing gender gap in Obama's favor, with female voters preferring Obama over Romney by an 8-percentage-point margin.

Seizing on this numerical advantage, Democrats and allies have promoted the narrative of a Republican "War on Women," pointing to Romney's pledge to defund Planned Parenthood and the GOP platform's opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

The clash began early in the election season, when Republicans balked at an Obama administration mandate requiring employers to cover workers' birth control costs, even if it violated employers' religious beliefs.

Democrats also highlighted the GOP's stance on abortion and rape when Missouri U.S. Rep. Todd Akin said that victims of "legitimate rape" don't get pregnant. Romney and a host of Republican leaders scrambled to condemn Akin's remark. But the episode, following the battle over contraception, gave Democrats an opening to argue that the party as a whole is out of touch with the concerns of women.

"The Republicans opened the door, and the Democrats walked right in," said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.

'Gender gap'

Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, said it is "important to push back against the idea that America is somehow inherently unfair to women," which is one reason Republicans have stuck to a broader economic message, even as they try to counter Democratic appeals to women.

"The Democrats have for many years been very comfortable playing identity politics and gender politics," she said. "Both parties do it, but it makes more Republicans uncomfortable."

As a conservative, Schaeffer said she is put off by "Life of Julia"-style pitches. "The idea that I need a set of cradle-to-grave government policies ... Is that the world they envision for single women?" she said.

But a host of analysts believe the pronounced gender gap dovetails with the tendency of women -- but by no means all women -- to see a greater need for government safety-net programs, particularly in such areas as education, nutrition, and health care.

Said Bystrom: "Poll after poll shows that women feel there is a role for government in our lives."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.