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WASHINGTON - With women's votes emerging as a major battleground in the 2012 presidential election, the three women in Minnesota's congressional delegation are carving out distinctly contrasting roles.
Labeled by Democrats as a GOP "war on women," the fight has most directly ensnared Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann, whose recent endorsement of Romney became instant fodder for a Democratic National Committee (DNC) video attacking her outspoken opposition to abortion rights.
At the same time, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar thrust herself into the forefront of an ongoing debate on domestic violence, trumpeting her role leading "Senate women" in an effort to pass a bill combating crimes against women.
Still, Klobuchar has steered clear of rhetoric accusing Republicans of assaulting women's rights, and Bachmann has dubbed the so-called war on women a "myth."
In contrast, Rep. Betty McCollum is echoing the Obama campaign's growing narrative on the GOP, saying "it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the programs that they're cutting are the programs that impact women."
McCollum argued on the House floor that women in Minnesota would be "disproportionately impacted" by a GOP plan to fund lower student loan rates by taking money out of a public health fund created by the new health care reform law.
Recently she tweeted, "House #GOP's war on #women cuts $ to women's preventative health to pay for lower student loan interest rates. GOP protects big oil subsidies."
Congressional partisans are clashing on other issues such as pay equity, contraception and student loans in ways calculated to be felt in the coming showdown between President Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Republicans have responded by arguing that women are hit hardest by a weak economy, for which they blame Obama. Bachmann, taking aim at the government's latest jobless numbers, said that "the president's focus is on dividing our country through the phony 'war on women,' or a fake debate on student loan rates, or through a campaign gimmick tax increase to incite class warfare."
The sharpening rhetoric suggests that in an election year marked by partisan stalemate, Congress will be a forum for a stand-in battle over which party best serves women, who as a group represent one of Obama's best demographics.
"Issues that disproportionately affect women are surprisingly prominent in an election where voters are most concerned about the economy," said University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson.
For example, the House is set for a debate on renewing the Violence Against Women Act, the domestic violence bill that Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken championed in the Senate.
The Clinton-era bill has generated little controversy in the past. This year, it has been caught up in an election-year dispute. One sticking point is language introduced by Democrats that would afford new protections to gays, lesbians, immigrants and American Indians. It passed the Senate 68-31, with the help of all five Republican women.
Klobuchar described the bill as an important tool for ending violence against women, adding "it is about the broader community."
But some Republicans accused Democrats of politicizing women's issues. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 presidential candidate, voted for the domestic violence bill even as he too accused Democrats of conjuring up a phony "war on women."
"To suggest that one group of us or one party speaks for all women, or that one group has an agenda to harm women and another to help them is ridiculous," McCain said.
As for the putative "war on women," Klobuchar said she's "never used that term and never will."
"While this came up at a time when there's been a lot of talk about women's issues, it would have come up anyway," she said, noting that the federal law protecting victims of domestic violence would otherwise expire in September.
Nevertheless, Democrats have continued to echo the "assault" on women refrain ever since conservatives recoiled at the Obama administration's plans to mandate that faith-based employers such as hospitals and schools provide birth-control in health insurance plans. Critics of the mandate called that a "War on the Catholic Church," even though the controversy subsided somewhat when the White House decided to shift the cost onto insurance companies.
Interviewed on the Glenn Beck GBTV network, Bachmann said that the contraceptives debate was "a trap that the left would love to have us dance in." More to the point, she said, was that "women have a lot more to lose under Obamacare." She has made frequent reference to the federal health care law's contraceptive mandates ever since.
The partisan battle is expected to resume in the coming weeks and months, when Democrats bring up the Paycheck Fairness Act, intended to ensure that women who do the same work as men are paid the same. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that Republicans filibustered the bill when he brought it up in 2010. Republicans say that by expanding the definition of wage discrimination, the bill would open businesses to more class-action lawsuits and hurt job creation.
The bill's prospects are anything but certain, but an all-out effort to court women voters is. Both sides have seen multiple polls indicating that Obama has a sizable lead among women, who tend to vote at higher rates than men, although not as a bloc.
The Obama campaign made its appeal more explicit this month, with a web page called "The Life of Julia," the tale of a fictional middle-class woman and how she would fare in each stage of her life under a Romney agenda, versus such Obama-backed social initiatives as Head Start, student loans, health insurance and equal pay rights.
Romney's response has been to focus intently on the economy.
"The U.S. economy is a hostile workplace for women under President Obama," Romney advisor Ed Gillespie said on NBC's Meet the Press. "We look forward to this debate."
McCollum said she too welcomes a debate about the economic well-being of women, noting that it's been social conservatives who have brought up contraceptives in recent months.
"I think women are going to seriously look at what candidate is going to make sure they get equal pay for equal work, that they're not discriminated against, and that they have access to what they need in health care," McCollum said.
"Men don't get pregnant. Women do."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.