By LAURIE KELLMAN
WASHINGTON - The White House - and President Barack Obama himself - rushed into a damage control campaign Thursday to blunt the impact of a Democratic consultant's suggestion that Ann Romney isn't qualified to discuss the economy because she "hasn't worked a day in her life."
"It was the wrong thing to say," Obama declared in an interview with WCMH-TV in Columbus, Ohio, standing up for Republican rival Mitt Romney's wife with Democrats suddenly on the defensive over women's issues for the first time this election year. Of the "ill-advised statement" by consultant Hilary Rosen, he added, "It's not something that I subscribe to."
In an interview with Cedar Rapids, Iowa, TV station KCRG, the president said "there's no tougher job than being a mom" and cited the efforts of his wife, Michelle, and his own mother, a single woman with two children.
"That's work," he said. "So, anybody who would argue otherwise probably needs to rethink their statement."
The president's remarks were his answer to Rosen's comments and the Twitter war they ignited. The mere fact that he weighed in on the uproar left no doubt that Democrats want to leave nothing to chance in their effort to keep female voters in the party fold. Women, who are the majority of voters in presidential election years, lean heavily Democratic, and polls show Obama holds a commanding lead among this group so far this year in battleground states.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, must win about 40 percent of female voters to have a chance at beating Obama, and he's targeting married women and mothers who tend to be more conservative. Among this group, Ann Romney is popular and has been the candidate's chief surrogate on how the struggling economy has affected women and families.
So while the candidate remained silent Thursday, his campaign pounced when Rosen said on CNN Wednesday that Ann Romney was no expert on the economy.
"His wife has actually never worked a day in her life," Rosen said. "She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of women in this country are facing."
Rosen apologized late Thursday, after first lady Michelle Obama tweeted her own support for women and mothers.
The backlash to Rosen's comments was bipartisan, brutal and swift, crackling across Twitter, cable television and old-fashioned telephone lines. It appeared to have reignited the "Mommy Wars" debate, at least for now, over choices many women make as they juggle motherhood with the work most need to pay bills, college tuition and a semblance of financial security for their families.
Ann Romney fought back on Twitter and television, tweeting: "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work."
Later, on Fox News, she noted that her career choice was being a mother, and while she hasn't faced financial hardship she has confronted the ordeals of cancer and multiple sclerosis. Finally, she noted that her husband has said her work is more important than his as family breadwinner.
"He would say, 'My job is temporary. ... Your job is a forever job that's going to bring forever happiness,"' Ann Romney said. "Mitt respects women that make those different choices."
Two decades after Hillary Rodham Clinton famously declared that she could have stayed home and made cookies rather than pursue a career, the role of women in American society remains a hotly contested cultural question. It's a deeply personal matter to anyone with children. And by midday Thursday, it seemed they were all weighing in.
Rosen is one such parent. She describes herself on her Twitter feed as a "mom with opinions" and is a longtime Democratic consultant and CNN political contributor. She's a managing director of SKD Knickerbocker, a communications and public relations firm she joined in 2010 that has been paid $120,000 by the Democratic National Committee in this election cycle, financial disclosure records show. A party official said the services were provided by former Obama adviser Anita Dunn, another managing director at the firm.
However close Rosen is or isn't to Obama and his Democrats, her comments about Ann Romney clearly caused them problems.
Vice President Joe Biden said on MSNBC that she had made "an outrageous assertion." David Axelrod, Obama's top campaign strategist, tweeted that Rosen's comments were "inappropriate and offensive." The president's campaign manager, Jim Messina, said Rosen should apologize.
Michelle Obama tweeted, "Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected. - mo." Such tweets tagged "mo" are from the first lady, a mother of two with a law degree.
Rosen initially refused to back down.
"I am raising children too," Rosen tweeted to Ann Romney. "But most young American women HAVE to BOTH earn a living AND raise children. You know that don't u?"
By the time Obama's remarks had been released, Rosen had done what he suggested: rethought her stance and said sorry.
"I apologize to Ann Romney and anyone else who was offended," Rosen said in a statement. "Let's declare peace in this phony war and go back to focus on the substance."