The fragile gains Republicans had been making among female voters have been erased, a shift that has coincided with what has become a national shouting match over reproductive issues, potentially handing President Obama and the Democrats an enormous advantage this fall.

In the 2010 congressional midterm elections, Republican candidates ran evenly with Democrats among women, a break with long-established trends. That was a major reason the GOP regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Now, female voters appear to be swinging back to Democrats.

A number of polls show that Obama’s approval among women has risen significantly since December, even as it has remained flat among men. The same trend, which began before the controversy in recent weeks, is also showing up further down the ballot.

When a Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey asked in the summer which party should control Congress, 46 percent of women favored Democrats and 42 percent preferred Republican control.

But in a survey released Monday, compiling data since the beginning of the year, that figure had widened considerably to a 15-point advantage for the Democrats, according to polling by the team of Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff. Fifty-one percent favored Democratic control; only 36 percent wanted to see the Republicans in charge.

‘Quantum leaps’

Both sides have tried to shape the narrative in this battle for and about women. But many Republicans are beginning to wish they had never waded into what has become a heated conversation over contraception, who should have it and what it says about people who use it.

GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s campaign, said Republicans need to return to pocketbook and fiscal issues. “We know what works,” she said, “and we need to get back to it.”

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) recalled in an interview organizing meetings at the Reagan White House in the 1980s to help Republicans grapple with what was being dubbed the “gender gap.” Since then, she said, “we had made quantum leaps.”

“We really don’t want to reignite a disparity of support between men and women,” she added, saying the debate over contraception “could create some serious fractures among women if we’re not careful. It feels as if we are going back to another era.”

In focus groups, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, what women are expressing is not anger at the positions Republicans are taking but frustration with the amount of attention reproductive issues are getting.

“Particularly among blue-collar women,” she said, “what we hear is, ‘How can you be arguing over this when Rome is still burning for me and my family?’ ”

Even the wife of presidential contender Rick Santorum has told him to quit trumpeting his opposition to birth control.

“My advice to him was stop answering the question,” Karen Santorum told Politico. “Tell them, ‘I’m not going to answer this question. Let me tell you what I know about national security. I know a lot about national security.’ ”

A GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the party’s situation frankly, said: “It’s devastating. I don’t think it’s going to go away. I think it’s going to be a significant challenge the Republican nominee is going to inherit.”

Democratic advantage

Obama has moved aggressively to take advantage of the opening Republicans have provided. He personally called Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University student who had been attacked by conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh over her advocacy for contraceptive coverage, and expressed his support.

And the White House announced in recent days that the president will give the commencement address this year at Barnard College, an all-female school. (The previously scheduled speaker bumped off the stage by Obama was Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor in the history of the New York Times.)

The attention to women’s issues has reassured Obama’s feminist allies who had been concerned with what they had seen as a lack of attention to female voters, who had been drifting away from the Democratic fold.

“No question that if you are Obama, you have to do better with women in order to win,” said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, who estimates that the president will need at least 53 percent of female voters to get reelected.

Feminist groups and Democratic candidates across the country are taking the opportunity to raise money with the “war on women” theme. The mother of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) sent out a fundraising letter blasting “Rush Limbaugh and his out-of-control nasty mouth.” Tennis legend Billie Jean King has signed on to the House Democrats’ fundraising efforts, asking donors to “help us send Republicans a clear, unmistakable, and powerful message.”

And late last month, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee produced a video titled “The GOP’s War on Women” that highlighted the recent controversy and promoted the campaigns of six incumbent female senators and five other women running for Senate seats.

In state legislatures, some female lawmakers are reacting vocally to the national debate, as well as state measures on abortion and contraceptive coverage. New York Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, a Republican, said the efforts “are taking women back decades” and that she would vote for Obama if she were voting now, because “there are no other candidates out there.”

In Virginia, state Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) drew national attention when she offered an amendment requiring men seeking medication for erectile dysfunction to receive a rectal exam and cardiac stress test. She was responding to a bill requiring women to undergo invasive ultrasounds before they get abortions. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed a weakened version of the bill into law Thursday.

“I think most women assumed that these were settled issues probably three decades ago and are aghast that it’s been reopened,” Howell said. “Almost half my e-mails . . . are from men. And they’re speaking for their wives, their girlfriends, their daughters, and are very upset by what’s happening. Many of them say they have been Republicans but they’re not going to vote Republican in the future.”

Some Democrats say the contraception issue gives them an opportunity to connect with women who were born after the early years of the feminist movement and who don’t think abortion rights are under a serious threat.

“We always have had challenges with younger women,” said Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress think tank. “All of a sudden, when the national conversation is about contraception, they wake up.”

Storm of controversy

A perfect storm of social-issue controversies had been building, and the clouds burst in February.

The first thunderclap was the announcement by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation that it was ending its grants to Planned Parenthood. It reversed its decision in the ensuing furor.

That was quickly followed by a standoff between the White House and the Catholic church over a requirement that employers provide contraceptive coverage under the new health-care law.

Senate Republicans got into the fight as well, making an unsuccessful attempt to pass an amendment that would have allowed any employer to opt out of providing birth control. They cast it as a vote for religious freedom.

“This is tyranny,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said of the new health-care law’s requirement. “This is discrimination masquerading as compassion, and I’m going to fight it.”

For at least one female senator, however, remorse soon followed. “I have never had a vote I’ve taken where I have felt that I let down more people that believed in me,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told the Anchorage Daily News on Sunday, adding, “The wind had shifted, and Republicans didn’t have enough sense to get off of it.”

Republicans and their allies have fueled the fire, most damagingly with accusations that women use birth control so they can be more promiscuous.

Santorum’s biggest financial backer, Foster Friess, told a mossy joke on MSNBC about aspirin being a form of birth control if a woman puts it between her knees. Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

Making it all the more awkward for Republicans was the fact that all this was happening just at the moment that a vocal social conservative was moving to the front of the GOP presidential pack.

“Part of it had to do with Santorum as the front-runner at the time this broke,” Conway said.

Conway warned that there are political dangers for the Democrats, as well, if they appear so caught up in the contraception controversy that they take their focus off the economy.

“Voters tend to reject overreach and distraction — women in particular,” she said.

Staff writers Ed O’Keefe and Laura Vozzella and polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.