WASHINGTON — It was the gift Mitt Romney has been seeking — and it came from a Democrat.
Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen's comment Wednesday night that Ann Romney "never worked a day in her life" touched off a cable news/Twitter firestorm that raged Thursday, giving Romney — who trails Obama among female voters — an opportunity to bash Obama and proclaim his own commitment to women's issues.
Obama sought to repair the damage in an interview Thursday, telling a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, TV station that "there's no tougher job than being a mom."
"Anybody who would argue otherwise, I think, probably needs to rethink their statement," Obama said.
But with women voters poised to play a critical role in the election, the Romney campaign sought full advantage, with Ann Romney appearing on Fox News to say that her "career choice was to be a mother" and that her husband "respects women that make those different choices."
"I think all of us need to know we need to respect choices women make," Romney said.
The furor began when Rosen, a top Democratic activist, told CNN that Romney was unable to relate to middle-class women because she did not work while raising the couple's five sons.
Republicans pounced and looked to tie Rosen to the Obama administration, noting that White House logs suggested she'd visited more than 30 times. Romney supporters on a hastily arranged conference call told reporters that the remarks were an insult to all stay-at-home mothers and reflected an Obama administration disdain for women.
The campaign shot out a Fox News interview with former first lady Barbara Bush saying she was "sorry that (Rosen) took a knock at those of us who chose ... to stay home and take care of their children."
The administration and Democrats moved just as quickly to distance themselves from Rosen's remarks, with first lady Michelle Obama — a mother of two and a former hospital executive — taking to Twitter to note that "every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected."
Obama's campaign managers suggested Rosen needed to apologize, and Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz tweeted that she was "disappointed" by Rosen's remarks, adding that "as a mother of 3, there's no doubt that raising children is work."
Rosen herself backtracked Thursday afternoon, issuing a statement that apologized for her "poorly chosen" words.
She said her remarks were in response to Romney referring to his wife as a "better person to answer questions about women than he is," and that she was "discussing his poor record on the plight of women's financial struggles."
But she suggested in a CNN interview that the Republican reaction was a "distraction that his campaign is forcing on the American people to avoid his record."
The dustup effectively drowned out a Democratic attempt to remind voters about the sixth anniversary of Romney's signature health care law in Massachusetts. Obama's campaign Thursday morning unveiled a video needling Romney for the measure. It included a cameo by a former Romney consultant who also worked with Obama and called the Obama health care law "the national version" of Romney's health care law.
Instead, Romney's camp orchestrated a conference call with women Romney supporters, assailing Obama's record.
"This administration would do well to stop disrespecting stay-at-home moms," said Penny Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, suggesting Rosen's remarks were "indicative of a larger problem within the administration."
Stephanie Nielson, a mother of five who spoke on the behalf of the Romney campaign, said she was bothered that Rosen has suggested Romney was "old fashioned. The things we have in our society, goals for fathers and mothers in the home, is not old fashioned. He's empowering them by supporting our desire to be a mother."
Republicans even turned the flap into an opportunity to raise money, with the Republican National Committee offering $15 travel mugs embossed with the words, "Moms Do Work! Vote GOP."
"I believe that Moms do work and can't stand liberals who think that Moms don't," the order form reads, adding that "to help defeat elitists (sic) liberals like Barack Obama, I would like to purchase a 'Moms Do Work' travel mug."
But several political science professors who study women in politics noted a longstanding gender gap between Republicans and Democrats and suggested the flap won't have staying power.
"The candidates and the media might think it's an interesting issue, but I don't know that it's going to create a real dynamic in the race," said Jill Greenlee, a Brandeis University politics professor who said there's little connection between a woman's choice of political party and a decision to stay home raising children.
"The debates over actual policy issues have more staying power," she said. "It would be one thing if they were talking about addressing child care or other needs of women, that might have some traction, but this to me seems like a dustup."
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