By THOMAS BEAUMONT
CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) - If President Barack Obama wins this swing-voting state, and a second term as president, voters like Paula Burky will probably be the reason.
"He understands women," said Burky, a Westminster resident who last month decided to vote for Obama.
Both the Democratic president and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, see women _ specifically suburbanites from their 30s to their 50s _ as critical to victory in Colorado as well as in other hard-fought places like Virginia and Nevada where polls also show close contests. That means this group of voters may also hold the key to winning the White House.
The state of the campaign in the sprawling Denver region _ modest neighborhoods and upscale subdivisions near the city give way to retail complexes, industrial parks and front-range ranches at the outskirts _ illustrates how the fight is playing out across the nation, and how both candidates are seeking to woo these female voters in different ways.
Obama has stirred passions among Colorado women by stoking fears about abortion rights, spending the past few weeks sharply criticizing Romney in ads for proposing to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and opposing the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
Romney, in turn, has paid for mail and automated calls in Colorado decrying Obama's handling of the sluggish economy's effect on women.
Just over 100 days until the election, polls in Colorado show a close race, though it's unclear how the electorate's psyche will be impacted by last week's shooting massacre at a suburban Denver movie complex and a summer wildfire season that has scorched countless homes and businesses.
For now at least, Obama has had the edge over female voters nationally and he is focusing on a particularly promising subset: college-educated women. Fifty-five percent of college-educated women preferred Obama in a June Associated Press-GfK poll, while 40 percent preferred Romney.
Women with college degrees make up 27 percent of Colorado voters, according to exit polls from the 2008 election, higher than the national average of 23 percent. That puts Colorado in league with other prime Romney-Obama targets, Virginia and New Hampshire.
Burky is among those who have gravitated toward Obama. She and her husband were unemployed for eight months until recently, while their teenage daughter was recovering from cancer. Burky was swayed by Obama's action last spring _ opposed by Romney _ to make it easier for women to obtain birth control, a move she said has economic repercussions.
"If women are choosing abortion because they are in dire economic straits, I have a moral obligation to vote for the candidate who is going to help them," Burky said.
Jill Wildenburg, an Obama supporter who lives in Englewood, calls the president's focus "huge because if women's reproductive rights are marginalized, then women are marginalized."
To press his argument that he's on the side of women, Obama sponsored a national women's summit last month in Colorado _ in Jefferson County _ featuring senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and "Desperate Housewives" actress Eva Longoria. The week before he dispatched first lady Michelle Obama to Arapahoe High School in Centennial.
The controversy over the Obama administration's requirement that group health plans to offer no-cost preventive care coverage to women for items including birth control took a local turn on Friday.
A federal judge in Denver issued a preliminary injunction barring penalties against a Colorado-based heating and air conditioning business whose health coverage for employees doesn't cover birth control. Hercules Industries Inc. is run by a family whose Roman Catholic beliefs condemn contraception, but the company doesn't qualify as a religious employer exempt from providing the coverage.
Romney, in a statement issued by his campaign, said in part: "Freedom of conscience has won an important victory. Today's injunction preventing the federal government from forcing one family business from having to choose between keeping its doors open and violating its faith is a step in the right direction."
Obama is partly borrowing from the playbook of Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet's winning U.S. Senate race in 2010. Bennet narrowly beat Ken Buck after painting him as extreme in pointed TV ads about the Republican's opposition to abortion rights and popular forms of birth control. He carried Arapahoe and Jefferson counties by a combined 10,000 votes, about a third of his narrow margin over Buck.
"That portrayal of Buck is what beat him," said Democratic pollster Paul Harstad, an adviser to Bennet who also does polling for Obama's campaign.
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