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GOP hands gifts to Axelrod, Dems

Updated: April 1, 2012 8:11AM

David Axelrod walked into his small, largely unused office at the Obama for President headquarters on Tuesday looking a bit tired but relaxed.

Why not? The Dow was closing above 13,000 for the first time since 2008. That’s when two Democrats were battling for their party’s nomination. The storyline back then was Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama.

On Tuesday, as the president’s chief strategist talked politics, primary voters in Michigan were deciding which Republican, in a bare-knuckled GOP brawl, would win. The storyline pitted Mitt Romney against Rick Santorum.

Moderate Republicans, the kind who count in general elections but get shouted down in primaries, are worried. And they should be.

On Tuesday in Virginia, the Republican state Senate passed a bill requiring women who seek abortions to undergo an ultrasound exam. A variation of that bill is in the pipeline in Illinois, where our own primary will be held March 20.

For independent women wondering whom to vote for, Republicans are doing an excellent job of driving them to the Democrats.

And that’s not just my opinion. Pat Brady, who chairs the Illinois Republican Party, is concerned. And says so. “They [Democrats] beat us on the messaging,” he told me, referring to the fight over the Obama mandate to provide contraception coverage for all women.

While Catholic bishops bitterly oppose the mandate on religious grounds — causing the administration to modify it slightly — the fact is that a vast majority of even Catholic women use or support birth control.

The Obama team “made it a contraceptive issue, not freedom of religion. And so it hurts us with independents,” Brady said.

“I’ll let other people make the political calculus,” Axelrod said. But he added, “The Republican Party makes a mistake when they take such a tough position against that.”

Just last week in the Chicago area, the Obama campaign website noted more than 40 gatherings of Women for Obama. First lady Michelle Obama phoned in to stir up the troops.

What did she tell them?

“I think she talked about a variety of things, but health care was one issue that she talked about,” Axelrod said. “But there are other issues that are important . . . and she addressed them all.”

Add the improving economy to the conversation and you can understand why the GOP debate has shifted to social issues to rally the base. What the party’s right wing may be ignoring, however, is the sheer power of the women’s vote.

“Women, who constitute more than half the population,” wrote the Center for American Women in Politics in November, “have cast between four and seven million more votes than men in recent elections.”

That’s not just a “ you go girl.” It is a fact. And right now, it plays far better in the Democrats fall playbook.

That’s not to say Axelrod and the political army that inhabits the Chicago campaign office are taking anything for granted. Anything can change this far out from a November election. It will be hotly contested.

And so the massive office, which back in July was a third filled, is now crammed with staffers and supporters working phones and computers.

Still, I thought I could detect the faint sound of whistling while they worked.

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