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The ‘war on caterpillars,’ and what Reince Priebus meant

at 01:46 PM ET, 04/05/2012

The battle over women voters in the 2012 presidential campaign reached a fever pitch early Thursday, with Democrats crying foul over Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus’ comments using an insect — a caterpillar, to be exact — to call into question Democratic tactics.

Because there’s already so much spin out there about the comments, let’s first look at exactly what Priebus was asked and what he said.

Here’s the exchange from a taping of this weekend’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” on Bloomberg TV:

And, here’s the transcript:

HUNT: Let me ask you this. The Democrats of course say you are waging, the GOP is waging a war on women. I know you don’t agree with that, but looking at the polls, you have a gender gap problem. Recent polls show a huge, huge margin for Democrats among women voters. How big a problem is it? How do you close it?
PRIEBUS: Well, for one thing, if the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars, and mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we have problems with caterpillars. The fact of the matter is it’s a fiction and this started a war against the Vatican that this president pursued. He still hasn’t answered Archbishop Dolan’s issues with Obama world and Obamacare, so I think that’s the first issue.

Democrats immediately jumped on Priebus’s comments, accusing him of comparing women to caterpillars.

“Reince Priebus’ comparison of Republican attempts to limit women’s access to mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, and contraception to a ‘war on caterpillars’ shows how little regard leading Republicans, including Mitt Romney, have for women’s health,” said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter.

That point is debateable. By our watching — and reading — Priebus is picking a fanciful idea (a war on caterpillars) to call into question the idea that Republicans are engaged in a war on women. He’s only comparing caterpillars to women if you accept the first premise — that the GOP is indeed conducting this war.

The larger point here is that Democrats are going great-guns to drive a wedge between Republicans (and specifically former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney) and women, using even the thinnest of threads — and that’s what this seems to be — to build a narrative that the GOP is no friend to females.

Other examples of this push by Democrats: White House press secretary Jay Carney said today that President Obama wants women to be allowed into Augusta National Golf Club, site of this weekend’s “The Masters” golf tournament. And tomorrow, the White House will hold an event on women and the economy.

Recent polling suggests the Democrats’ approach is working — buoyed by the Sandra Fluke controversy involving conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh and the extended contraception debate in the Republican presidential primary process. On Wednesday, even Romney (kind of, sort of) acknowledged that Democrats had outhustled Republicans on the issue, saying they had “done and effective job of mischaracterizing our views.”

Republicans insisted that Democrats are making a mountain out of a caterpillar hill. “From hope to faux caterpillar outrage,” RNC communications director Sean Spicer tweeted. “Oh, how far the mighty have fallen.”

They also flagged a release today from the South Carolina Democratic Party, in which state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian made a sideways comparison between Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and reality TV stars like the Kardashians and Snooki (of “Jersey Shore” fame/infamy) as an example of Democrats’ double standard.

In the end, this Priebus episode feels like sound and fury signifying not all that much. What it does tell us, though, is that Democrats see a chance to make Romney — and Republicans — unpalatable to women (and independent women in particular) this November, and they are moving quickly to take advantage.

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