Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, center, is handed lunch by a Culver's employee at the fast-food restaurant in Johnson Creek, Wis., Sunday, April 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

In the 12 states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin — included in the Gallup/USA Today survey, Obama leads Romney 51 percent to 42 percent.

While that lead is eye-opening in its own right — most people believe that the race between Obama and Romney will be very close — it’s all the more remarkable given that, just a month ago, Romney held a two-point edge in these same 12 states.

And even a cursory look inside the numbers explains why Obama has reclaimed the lead; it’s women. In mid-February, Obama took less than half of the vote from women under 50 years old. Now he wins more than 60 percent of them. (Obama is ahead of Romney among all women by 18 points.)

“Romney certainly didn’t create the gender gap, but the heir apparent will inherit what is no doubt a challenge,” acknowledged Tracey Schmitt, a former spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee. “The general election will provide the campaign an opportunity to address the divide.”

That rapid consolidation of women behind Obama seems directly attributable to the focus in the Republican presidential primary on contraception and other reproductive rights issues during the past six weeks or so.

The candidates’ emphasis on social issues has led many within the party’s strategist class to throw up their hands in frustration — insisting that the candidates should be spending all of their time talking about the economy.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who himself considered a run for president this year, said that the debate over women’s rights and contraception was begun by the Obama Administration when it announced that religious-affiliated organizations would have to cover birth control in their insurance plans. But, he added in an interview with Reuters, his party had bungled its response.

“Where I wish my teammates had done better and where they mishandled it is … I thought they should have played it as a huge intrusion on freedom,” Daniels told Reuters.

The Gallup/USA Today numbers come hard on the heels of other recent polling that suggests Obama has strengthened even as Romney has weakened — at least among the general electorate.

A CNN survey released last week showed Obama leading Romney 54 percent to 43 percent nationally, a major improvement on the five-point margin the incumbent carried in February.

There’s little debate that Romney is as low (or close to it) as he has ever been in a matchup against Obama — whether nationally or in swing states. What’s less clear is a) how much of Romney’s current struggles are directly attributable to him, and b) whether his poll numbers are a moment in time or have the potential to be a longer-term problem.

On the first question, Romney may be falling victim to a voter backlash against Republicans generally. While Romney has been outspoken in his plan to defund Planned Parenthood — something Democrats will bring up relentlessly in the general election — he has largely sought to stay away from the sort of divisive social debates that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich have tried to steer the primary toward.

Of course, the longer the primary has dragged on — and we are now very clearly in the purgatory phase — the more difficult it has been for Romney to keep himself above the fray. As evidence, here’s the line of n L.A. Times story on Sunday: “Romney, Santorum court religious conservatives in Wisconsin.”

On the second, it’s far harder to assess whether the focus on contraception, coupled with a general weariness with the Republican primary, has created a temporary perfect storm of bad numbers for Romney or whether this women polling problem is here to stay.

Romney and his team will, of course, do everything possible to re-focus his message on the economy as he pivots to the general election. But Democrats will work equally hard to remind voters — particularly 30-something independent women — of statements Romney (and the rest of the Republican field) made on issues like birth control and women’s rights during the primary season.

Abby Huntsman Livingston, the daughter of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who has endorsed Romney, sees the latest poll numbers as reflective of a broader problem for the former Massachusetts governor.

“Team Romney’s constant reminders of his willingness to shift positions based on political expediency tends to engender a lack of trust from voters,” said Huntsman Livingston. “Women are no exception.”

Nicolle Wallace, a Republican strategist, said Romney has the potential to make up his current deficit with women.

“Romney’s dip among women can be temporary if he stays focused on the economy and on running a smart, civilized campaign against Obama — something Romney is uniquely qualified to do much better than any of the other republicans still lingering,” said Wallace.

The question for Romney is when he will get a chance on a big stage to re-fashion his image. Linda Divall, a Republican pollster, said that moment not come for a while.

“All Republican candidates suffer from a gender gap,” she said. “It is particularly acute right now and Romney will not be able to address it in a significant fashion until he is reintroduced to the public in a different light — meaning his convention speech.”

Brown and Warren running neck and neck: A new poll shows Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and challenger Elizabeth Warren (D) in a statistical tie.

The Boston Globe poll shows Brown at 37 percent and Warren at 35 percent, with 26 percent saying they are undecided.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of the crosstabs: When people are asked which candidate is more likeable, Brown wins 57 percent to 23 percent. Warren doesn’t have poor favorability numbers herself, but she seems to be trailing badly in the personal appeal department.

Without such an edge for Brown on that measure, it’s likely Warren would be leading. Much of the campaign ahead for Warren will be about closing that gap.

Baucus signals he’s in for 2014: Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the Senate finance committee chairman whose popularity in his home state has taken a hit in recent years, is already ramping up for his 2014 reelection bid.

AP reports Baucus is going up with some very early advertising in preparation for his campaign — a move that sends a signal the 70-year-old Baucus has no plans to retire and will be ready to campaign hard.

There has been some chatter that Baucus could face a primary with popular outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer. And polling from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling showed Baucus’s approval falling to around 40 percent after he took a leading role in passing Obama’s health care bill.

The buy is small — just $25,000 and on the radio — but it does demonstrate a senator who is girding for the next campaign.


Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R), a favorite of the tea party, endorses Romney.

Santorum attacks a Pennsylvania pollster who shows he and Romney in a statistical tie in his home state’s primary.

Santorum wins the endorsement of former Green Bay Packers football player Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila .

Vice President Biden predicts the Supreme Court will uphold Obama’s health care law.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) says he “really misspoke” when he accused military generals of hiding the truth about their budgets.

Sarah Palin will be a guest co-host on NBC’s “Today Show” on Tuesday.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) writes a $14,000 check to cover improperly expensed hotel stays in Indianapolis — about three times the amount he previously estimated.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is going up with Medicare-focused radio ads in eight districts held by GOP incumbents: Reps. Jeff Denham (CA-10), Mary Bono Mack (CA-36), Tom Latham (IA-03), Dan Benishek (MI-01), John Kline (MN-02), Joe Heck (NV-03), Quico Canseco (TX-23) and Reid Ribble (WI-08). The ads accused the members of choosing “Millionaires over Medicare” by voting for Ryan’s budget.


Santorum vows to stay in race” — Dan Balz and Philip Rucker, Washington Post

Why Ron Paul draws big crowds but fails to catch on” — Nia-Malika Henderson, Washington Post

Complacency a Threat to Romney in Wisconsin” — Nate Silver, New York Times

Maryland Republicans may give Romney a boost” — Aaron C. Davis, Washington Post