WASHINGTON — Obama vs. Romney, the main event, is on.
And so far it's all about women.
The campaigns for President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney wasted no time Wednesday directing fire at each other, signaling the start of the general election and a furious seven-month marathon to November in which women voters are poised to be decisive.
Trailing among women in many polls, Romney's camp opened the day with a conference call, tearing into Obama's record on women's issues and saying the president has "failed America's women."
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But when Romney advisers couldn't immediately answer if the former Massachusetts governor supported the 2009 Paycheck Fairness Act, which makes it easier for women to seek equal pay for equal work, Democrats went on the attack, saying that if Romney was "truly concerned about women in this economy, he wouldn't have to take time to 'think' about" whether he supported the law.
A spokeswoman for Romney later assured reporters that he wouldn't look to change the law and flooded reporters with a barrage of testimonials from women backing Romney.
Obama's policies have "wreaked havoc on women," declared Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. "Barack Obama talks a good game on women in the economy, but the facts don't back him up," added Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif.
Democrats were quick to point out that both lawmakers voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act in January 2009. Only three House Republicans backed the measure, which was the first bill Obama signed into law.
In an e-mail, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina assailed Romney's stance on women's issues, calling his positions the "most radically anti-women of any candidate in a generation."
The clash came as polls suggest Romney faces a gender gap among women voters and as the two candidates try to portray themselves as best poised to give women an economic boost. Romney is looking to paint Obama as a neophyte who has made the economic recovery slower and more painful, and Obama accuses Romney of looking to return the U.S. to the policies that brought on the recession.
Obama stood Wednesday at the White House with a group of millionaires and their assistants, pressing for his plan to require the richest Americans to pay at least the same tax rate as those in the middle class. Though Obama never mentioned Romney by name, he sought to portray Republicans as out of touch with the middle class — and even with their political idols.
He invoked a speech by Ronald Reagan in which Reagan called it "crazy" that tax loopholes made it possible for multimillionaires to pay less a percent of their income in taxes than bus drivers.
"That wild-eyed, socialist, tax-hiking class warrior was Ronald Reagan," Obama said, adding that Reagan's "position might disqualify him from the Republican primaries these days."
Romney ripped into Obama at an appearance in Connecticut, contending that Obama's economic policies have been especially harsh on women.
"What president has the worst record on female labor force participation?" Romney asked. "Barack Obama. In history, we've gone back 20 years. The progress that was made of more women getting into the workforce has been stepped back 20 years by virtue of this president's policies."
He charged that 92 percent of those who have lost jobs under Obama are women, but PolitiFact, an independent fact-checking organization started by the Tampa Bay Times, called the claim "mostly false" — a finding that the Romney camp disputes.
The race, overall, remains too close to call. An ABC News-Washington Post poll, conducted April 5-8, gave Obama a 51 percent to 44 percent edge over Romney. But the Gallup poll April 6-9 found Obama's approval rating at 44 percent, below the 50 percent threshold political analysts often consider important to make him a favorite in November.
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