In a last-ditch effort to prevent electoral disaster, President Barack Obama and Democratic allies are vigorously wooing women voters, whose usually reliable support appears to have softened.
From blunt TV ads to friendlier backyard chats, they're straining to persuade women that it's the Democrats who are on their side and it's in women's vital interest to turn out and vote in the Nov. 2 elections that could give Republicans control of one or both houses of Congress.
In Seattle on Thursday, Obama told local women and others that "how well women do will help determine how well our families are doing as a whole." Accompanied by women who own businesses, he spoke in a family's backyard about the economy's effects on women and outlined ways he said his policies have helped them.
Later, trying to rekindle the enthusiasm of his presidential race, he all but ordered thousands of cheering supporters at a packed University of Washington arena to get out and vote, even though he's not on the ballot. Hoarsely shouting over the applause, he said, "If everybody that voted in 2008 shows up in 2010, we will win this election. We will win this election. But you've got to come out and vote."
Campaigning for one of the Democrats' female senators, Patty Murray, who is in a tight re-election fight, Obama attracted a bigger crowd than the 10,000 who could fit into the arena. The others moved to an overflow area set up in the university's football stadium, and the president ran through the stadium tunnel onto the field to greet them.
With the elections less than two weeks away and Democrats fearing big losses, candidates, party allies and others are joining Obama in seeking women's votes by hitting Republican opponents -- in ads, mailings and speeches -- on issues such as abortion rights. In every corner of the country, they are arguing that the GOP would erase progress American women have made under Democratic control of the White House and Congress.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll underscores the Democrats' concern: Women long have leaned toward Democrats but, at a time of great economic unrest, those who are likely to vote now split fairly evenly between the two parties, 49 percent favoring Democrats, 45 percent Republicans. That's a significant drop from 2006 when Democrats had a double-digit edge. The current margin mirrors 1994, the year of a Republican wave that swept Congress.
Men usually break for Republicans, and they broadly favor the GOP this year, too.
Women could hold the key for Obama and his party as Democrats look to minimize expected widespread losses at all levels of government in a year when, particularly on the Republican side, female candidates top ballots in statewide races in Connecticut, South Carolina, California, New Hampshire, New Mexico and elsewhere.
Hope for the Democrats: A lot of women are undecided, and more than a third who are likely to vote say they could still change their minds before the election.
With that in mind, the White House, Democratic candidates and outside groups are reaching out to female voters.
Making it personal, Obama told the backyard group on Thursday he's determined to make sure that girls get as good an education as boys, particularly in math and science.
"As a father of two daughters, this is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about," he said.
He presented two women -- Christina Lomasney, a physicist and president of a local metals company, and Jody Hall, who has five cupcake shops in the Seattle area -- who praised the government for business help.
Besides the president, first lady Michelle Obama has campaigned on Democrats' behalf with a particular focus on women. She recently pleaded for their votes during a New York fundraiser that partly benefited the Women's Leadership Forum. She was flanked by Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, and actress Sarah Jessica Parker of "Sex and the City."
Mrs. Obama reminded the crowd that her husband had named two women to the Supreme Court and that the first piece of legislation he signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Act to help women achieve equal pay.
Across the country, Democratic candidates and their allies are reaching out to women, mostly by casting their Republican opponents -- some of them women as well -- as out-of-step with their concerns.
The head of EMILY's List, Stephanie Schriock, recently warned voters in a speech that a Republican takeover of Congress -- and Republican John Boehner as House speaker -- would mean "a dangerous world." The organization, dedicated to electing women who favor abortion rights, had hundreds of female volunteers calling women in California urging them to vote for Sen. Barbara Boxer.
In Nevada, a new ad by the Service Employees International Union assails Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's GOP challenger, saying Sharron Angle would force a rape victim who was impregnated to have the baby, and her ideas would hurt women's ability to get college loans, find jobs and have Social Security.
Elsewhere, Democrats have hammered Republican Ken Buck in Colorado's Senate race over claims of a woman who says Buck once refused to prosecute a case in which she said she had been raped. In Kentucky's Senate race, Democrat Jack Conway, trailing his GOP opponent in the polls, has an ad running that asks: "Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up?" -- a reference to an allegation of a college prank. And Washington Sen. Murray is assailing Republican Dino Rossi with an ad that accuses him of wanting to "turn back the clock" on abortion rights.
On Election Day a week from Tuesday, women could make the difference in a couple of dozen extraordinarily close congressional races scattered across the nation, and in a half dozen neck-and-neck Senate contests that could determine whether Republicans rise to power, among them Washington state, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Women also could affect governors' races from coast to coast, including the biggest prizes of the year in Ohio, California and Florida.
Top Democrats publicly shrug off the notion that women are fleeing the party, but the intense focus by the White House and candidates on this generally reliable constituency shows a concern.
"One of the issues that separates us from the Republican Party is our advocacy on these issues," said White House senior adviser David Axelrod. "There is a very strong case to be made for the advocacy that we've shown and for our belief that getting fair treatment for women, whether it's in the workplace, in the health care system, in obtaining capital in order to start or expand businesses."
To promote that position, Obama's National Economic Council released a report on "Jobs and Economic Security for America's Women" -- detailing small-business loans, child care tax credits and other programs aimed at women -- and top aide Valerie Jarrett made the rounds on morning talk shows to promote his policies.
"Strengthening opportunities for women in our economy is a key focus of the presidents economic agenda," Jarrett wrote the White House blog.
For Democrats, the challenge over the next days is great.
Women are less tuned into the election than men, with just 54 percent of women who are likely to vote saying they have a great deal of interest compared with 67 percent of men, according to the AP-GfK poll.
Still, nearly half of women say they want to see Democrats retain control of Congress, compared with 41 percent who would prefer the GOP. Men are the reverse.
Women likely to vote also are more apt than men to say they trust Democrats more than Republicans -- or they trust the two parties the same -- on most issues tested, including creating jobs.
And 54 percent of women likely to vote say they'd like to see their own House member re-elected. It's a good sign for Democrats in a Congress where they outnumber Republicans.
AP National Political Writer Liz Sidoti reported from Washington. AP Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.