Mitt Romney sparked internet ridicule and Democratic derision with his claim Tuesday night to have ordered up "binders full of women" to staff his Massachusetts cabinet, threatening to undermine his appeal to a key constituency in the final push to election day.
Romney's comment at the second presidential debate in Hempstead, New York, went viral online and raised questions about whether the Republican nominee had exaggerated his role in recruiting top women for his cabinet during his 2003-2007 term as governor.
The Boston-based non-partisan coalition of women's groups MassGAP said in a statement Wednesday that it spearheaded the process and compiled a roster of female applicants for top jobs in the state in 2002, then "presented this information to the administration for follow-up interviews and consideration for appointment".
That's at odds with Romney's version of events Tuesday night — that after being presented by his staff with an all-male list of potential appointees, he turned to women's groups to find him suitable female candidates, saying "Well, gosh, can't we — can't we find some — some women that are also qualified?"
At his request, Romney said, "they brought us whole binders full of women".
Embellished or not, the wording of Romney's claim may have complicated his efforts to humanise himself for undecided voters, particularly women.
President Barack Obama and his campaign team have seized on it to paint Romney as out of touch with women's concerns and insufficiently committed to advocating for them.
"Last night, the president talked about women as breadwinners," said a message posted on Obama's Twitter social media account today.
"Romney talked about them as resumes in 'binders'."
Another posting noted that the Republican hasn't said whether he would back pay equity legislation signed by Obama, while yet another quoted Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of that law, saying: "Mitt Romney's solution on levelling the playing field was to point out he once had a binder full of women applicants."
The flap could take on broader significance because women are a key voting group in this election, and one with which recent polls suggest Romney has been closing his gap with Obama before the two met in their first debate on October 3.
A USA Today/Gallup poll released October 15 of 12 politically competitive states showed Romney with an overall four percentage point lead over Obama, 50 per cent to 46 per cent, as the Republican improved his standing with women, who backed the president by just one percentage point more. That's compared to a nine-point edge Obama had over Romney with women in the rest of the country in the poll, more in line with the so-called "gender gap" that has worked to the advantage of Democratic presidential candidates in recent decades.
Obama had a 13-point edge among women voters in the 2008 election over Arizona Senator John McCain, that year's Republican nominee, according to exit polls.
Republicans said Romney's remark was being blown out of proportion at a time when women — like all other voters — are more concerned about economic opportunity and reducing the federal deficit.
"It's the president that does have the empty binder, because there's not legislation planned for the second term except for more spending," Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Romney surrogate, said on a conference call organised by the Republican Party.
"They don't want to talk about the issues that really matter to all voters — all issues are women's issues, and it's very diminishing that they only want to focus on a limited number of issues."
Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, said on the call that Romney had a track record of hiring females to top positions during his Massachusetts tenure, while a recent book written about Obama's White House asserted that it was a boys' club in which top female advisers were shut out of major decisions.
"Obama's got a book written about a hostile work environment," Priebus said, apparently referring to Ron Suskind's 2011 "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President."
"He's got no ground to stand on. It's all a bunch of small ball because he can't win on the big issues."
A question to Romney on how to equalise pay inequity for women prompted last night's discussion at a debate featuring queries from uncommitted voters.
Rather than responding to it, Romney discussed his efforts in Massachusetts to recruit and hire qualified women and a willingness on his part to provide women on his staff flexibility in their work schedules so they could care for their children.
"We're going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I'm going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they're going to be anxious to hire women," he said.
Romney's advisers said he hadn't misspoken or chosen an inartful phrase to characterise his record.
"No, absolutely not. You're talking about binders of resumes of women that he was able to get into his cabinet," said Stuart Stevens, a senior strategist.
"Look at his record — it's tremendous, in putting women in his cabinet, and relying on women in top positions in government and in business and in his campaign. We love to look at that record."
Women are under-represented in senior positions within the leveraged buyout industry in which Romney made his fortune, accounting for just 8.1 per cent of managing directors and senior executives, according to data compiled by Bloomberg last month.
That's about in line with the gender breakdown at Bain Capital, the Boston-based firm Romney co-founded and ran until 1999, which counts seven women among its 87 managing directors and senior directors.
A 2004 report by the State University of New York at Albany's Center for Women in Government and Civil Society ranked Massachusetts first among the 50 states in the percentage of women appointed to policy-making positions.
MassGAP said Romney had improved the proportion of new appointments of women in Massachusetts, to 42 per cent from 30 per cent, in his first two years in office.
"Subsequently, however, from 2004-2006 the percentage of newly-appointed women in these senior appointed positions dropped to 25 per cent," the group said in its statement. Romney left office in January 2007.
Like a majority of voters, women prioritize the economy and jobs over all else during this election year, and may not have reacted to the moment as political analysts in Washington did, said Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster with the firm Momentum Analysis.
Still, it could harm Romney's image at a time when he's working to show a more human side.
"The fact that it went viral among close political watchers doesn't mean that that specific moment is going to resonate with the public ultimately, but in that exchange, there's no question that Obama is expressing more empathy with women — they do get that," Omero said."
The reason the 'binders full of women' moment is so cringe-worthy is it encapsulates Mitt Romney's struggles in how he relates to women and women's issues. He literally put women on paper rather than as flesh and blood."
Obama responded in the debate by suggesting that Romney is anti-woman, noting that he hadn't weighed in on the pay equity law, has promised to zero out federal funding for the women's health organisation Planned Parenthood, and backed a measure to allow employers to deny insurance coverage for contraception.
"That's not the kind of advocacy that women need," Obama said.
Romney said in April that he has "no intention of changing" the pay-equity measure Obama signed, though he hasn't expressly endorsed it.
His vice presidential running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, said today on CBS that the measure was "not an equal pay law, it was about limiting — opening up the lawsuits and the statute of limitations" on workplace issues.
WASHINGTON POST - BLOOMBERG