CHARLOTTE — — Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the self-styled dean of the Democratic women in Congress, urged support of female candidates in an address to her party's national convention Wednesday that came as both presidential campaigns sought to court women voters.
As the longest-serving woman in Congress, Mikulski has emerged as a high-profile cheerleader and fundraiser for her party's female candidates. She has stepped into that role at an important time — as health care, abortion and equal pay have risen to the top of the nation's political discourse.
"We work on macro issues and we work on the macaroni and cheese issues," Mikulski, flanked by female Senate incumbents, said from the stage of the Time Warner Cable Arena. "Women leading means that Congress is working to create jobs … and strengthen the middle class."
The Democratic convention, which will end Thursday night when President Barack Obama formally accepts his party's nomination, has repeatedly focused on appealing to women. That effort continued Tuesday with an address by first lady Michelle Obama that Democrats — and some Republicans — praised as one of the best of the convention so far.
"The party's platform and our party leaders are focused on the things that matter to women," said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a delegate to the convention. "You need people who understand what it means to balance work and family life in a way that is pretty unique to mothers."
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday found that Republican nominee Mitt Romney is making inroads with women. The poll found that 46 percent of women viewed President Obama favorably, compared with nearly 60 percent earlier this year.
Democrats and Republicans are tailoring their message to women as a record number of females are pursuing seats in the House of Representatives. Nearly 300 filed as candidates this year and 160 have won their primaries, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Thirty-six women filed for Senate seats and 18 are still in the running.
Many of those races are among the most competitive in the nation. Democrat Elizabeth Warren is in a tight contest with incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts. In Nevada, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley is seeking to topple incumbent Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, in a race that is widely considered a tossup.
Mikulski, who has traveled the country stumping and fundraising for some of those candidates, said Wednesday that electing Democratic women would help Obama advance his agenda in a second term, including pay equity legislation she has sponsored.
"While Republicans tried to block our efforts to end pay discrimination once and for all, we, the women of the Senate, with President Obama by our side, will keep fighting — our shoulders square, our lipstick on," she said.
Republicans suffered a major setback in a Senate race that had once been considered close between incumbent Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican congressman Todd Akin. The dynamics of the race changed last month when Akin suggested in an interview that a woman's body can block pregnancies in cases of "legitimate rape."
Democrats pounced on the comments and tried to tie them to other Republican candidates. The campaign arm of House Democrats ran robo calls in Maryland's competitive 6th Congressional District, for instance, arguing that incumbent Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett shared Akin's views. The Republican lawmaker has renounced Akin's comments.
"Women are really paying attention to this election in terms of what is happening in this country on jobs and the economy," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But, she argued, they are also paying attention to what she called GOP efforts to "take away the rights of women."
Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist who has founded a nonprofit that supports female candidates in Maryland, said the Republican proposals to overhaul Medicare would have a disproportionate effect on women because they rely on the program more then men. "It really sends a message of backward priorities," she said.
Republicans have responded by arguing that the nation's 8.3 percent unemployment rate has had a major impact on women and that Obama owns responsibility for the economy. In a statement Wednesday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley made reference to Obama's self-assessed "incomplete" grade on the economy.
"As a mom, I know when my children, if they come home with an incomplete, it basically means they failed," the Republican said.
Decades of growth in the number of women in Congress ended after the 2010 election. In the Senate, the number of women remained constant at 17. But the number of female lawmakers in the House dropped by two to 88, which is about 20 percent of the chamber.