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election 2012:

As Akin resurrects “war on women” theme for Democrats, how will Republicans respond?

After taking an election year beating from Democrats on Medicare for months, Republicans regrouped, found their message and launched their counterattack.

But as Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment resurrected the “war on women” motif last week, it’s clear Republicans haven’t quite found a similar footing when responding to the broader charge that the GOP is on the wrong side of women’s issues.

The lack of a honed message was evident last week at a news conference in Reno, when Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, and Rep. Joe Heck, R-Henderson, tried to explain why Republicans will be fine with female voters this fall.

The response to Akin’s comments that a woman can’t get pregnant as a result of a “legitimate rape” was easy: describe them as offensive and indefensible and then move on to the next topic.

But the pair didn’t seem quite as sure of themselves when responding to the broader “war on women” launched by Democrats this year during a particularly caustic debate over whether businesses should be required to provide health insurance that cover contraceptives.

Amodei attacked it by describing Romney’s new running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as an excellent spokesman on the issue.

“When he talks about the issues, whether it’s health care, whether it's accessibility of health care, whether it’s the women thing … people really like the contrast,” Amodei said. “Here’s a guy who doesn’t read off the teleprompter. He tells you what he thinks.”

Amodei went on to explain: “You know what, Paul Ryan is a benefit on that because women appreciate honesty. So do men. And honesty is something that’s been in short supply when combined with leadership. And he’s got both of them.”

Heck tried a little different tact. He dismissed the idea that women would base their vote on abortion rights, contraception, equal pay — issues Democrats have used to pillory Republicans.

“Women vote the same pocketbook issues as men do,” Heck said.

He went on: “They vote about the No. 1 issue that all Americans are facing, which is: Am I going to keep my job? Am I going to get a job? Am I going to be able to pay my mortgage? Am I going to put food on the table?”

Indeed, that seems to be the fallback playbook: Briefly address the troublesome issue and then pivot to the economy.

The economy and jobs top the list of most important issues to voters. But both sides have exploited side issues to peel away segments of voters. Democrats see Medicare and women’s issues as just the way to do that.

Akin, who has apologized for his use of the word “legitimate,” refused to drop out of the U.S. Senate race in Missouri, virtually ensuring that his comments will remain a part of the Democrats’ arsenal as they build the case against Republicans for women voters.

Weekly tracking polls by Gallup show women continue to side with Obama over Romney by a wide margin.

Last spring, Democrats lost the edge on their “war on women” crusade when two things happened.

First, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus accused the party of manufacturing the “war on women,” likening it to the creating of a fictitious “war on caterpillars.” The rhetoric then delved into the absurd.

Then a Democratic pundit accused Ann Romney of “never working a day in her life.” Republicans put Ann Romney front and center to defend herself and other stay-at-home moms and was lauded as a capable spokeswoman on the issue.

As Republicans hone their approach to the “war on women” theme, both strategies — finding ways to ridicule the attack as well as putting forward articulate spokespeople — will likely come into play.

And if that doesn’t work, they’ll just deny the charges.

As one Republican put it: “If you really look into it, they are just off base.”

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