ARVADA, Colo. -- A nation at war, crippling joblessness and a looming budget standoff that could wreck the economy have been overshadowed in recent days by an issue that polls show doesn't even crack voters' lists of top 10 concerns: abortion.
Missouri Republican Todd Akin's comment that women who were victims of "legitimate rape" rarely become pregnant touched off furious maneuvering by Republicans and Democrats alike, the latest iteration of a campaign that has been driven by both sides' need to court a small slice of the American electorate. Several hundred thousand independent suburban women will play an outsized role in deciding whether President Barack Obama keeps his job.
The issue reverberated Sunday, on the eve of the Republican convention, as Mitt Romney accused Obama's campaign of sinking to a sad low by trying to link the GOP candidate to Akin's statements about rape and abortion.
Romney also conceded that the controversy is hurting the Republican Party, and GOP chairman Reince Priebus said Akin's insistence about staying in the Missouri Senate race could cost the party its shot at winning control of the Senate in November.
"It really is sad, isn't it, with all the issues that America faces for the Obama campaign to continue to stoop to such a low level," Romney said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."
Romney's comments were in response to Obama's contention that the Republican candidate has locked himself into "extreme positions" on economic and social issues and would surely impose them if elected president.
"I don't think that if Congress presented him with some of the items that are in the Republican platform at this convention that would, for example, entirely roll back women's control over their reproductive health, that he would stand in the way," Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press published Saturday.
The charges and countercharges reflect an ongoing political skirmish that shows no signs of letting up about two months before Election Day.
While suburban women are always a sought-after demographic in presidential campaigns -- 10 million more women than men voted in 2008 -- both sides agree that this campaign has been marked by an unusual intensity of debate over women's issues, particularly reproductive rights.
Both sides have clashed this year over Romney's calls to end federal funding of Planned Parenthood, Republican demands to let some employers avoid covering workers' birth control costs and a Democratic political operative's chastising of Romney's wife for being a housewife.
Polling data is mixed and hotly debated over whether the abortion issue helps candidates who favor abortion rights or those who oppose them. But Tony Robinson, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, said that Republicans are in peril this time because the stances they are now talking about -- like banning abortion in cases of rape or restricting birth control -- are ones that are widely unpopular.
"Whatever party is driven to its most extreme positions on this is punished by the electorate," Robinson said.
Democrats and some independent analysts say Republicans kicked off the debate by tacking hard to the right during the GOP primary.
"Rick Santorum is really the person they have to blame for this attention now," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, referring to the former Pennsylvania senator and strong abortion foe, who fought to pull social conservatives away from Romney during the primary.
In the hours after Akin's comments, Democrats leapt at the chance to link him to the Republican presidential ticket -- almost as quickly as Romney, his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, and other prominent conservatives -- scrambled to condemn the remarks.
Democrats noted that Ryan had co-sponsored a controversial bill of Akin's that they contended would redefine rape, announced a list of abortion rights activists as speakers at their upcoming convention and a weeklong national swing of female surrogates dubbed the "Romney/Ryan: Wrong for Women" tour.
Meanwhile, Republicans, who have their own women-heavy lineup of convention speakers, defended their inclusion of a plank in their party platform outlawing abortion in the case of rape.
Colorado is one of the most competitive presidential states, where pollsters estimate about 100,000 undecided voters -- the majority of whom are female -- will decide the race. Both campaigns are fighting hard in the state for the women's vote.
The Romney campaign holds weekly women's phone banks, where female volunteers gather to call other women and urge them to back the Republican ticket. The Obama campaign holds meetings, house parties and canvasses for women, and has television ads attacking Romney's stance on reproductive rights in heavy rotation.
During a campaign visit earlier this month, Obama was introduced by Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who was called a "slut" by Rush Limbaugh for her prepared testimony to a Senate committee that health insurance should cover birth control.
"When it comes to a woman's right to make her own health care choices," Obama said of his opponents, "they want to take us back to policies better suited to the 1950s than the 21st century. Colorado, you have to make sure it doesn't happen."
On Thursday, in an interview with a Denver television station, Romney was quickly asked how he would close the gender gap that persistently shows women favoring Obama.
"I think the issues women care about are the issues that our campaign is focused on -- which is, Number One, making sure that women and their kids and other members of their family are able to have good jobs," he said.
Analysts say both candidates face risks.
Romney needs only look to the last competitive election in Colorado, when Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet defied the 2010 GOP landslide by eking a narrow victory over his Republican opponent, Ken Buck.
Bennet painted his opponent as insensitive to women's issues while a debate also raged over a statewide ballot measure to grant legal rights to a fertilized egg. It was overwhelmingly defeated by a 70-30 percent margin but is returning to the ballot in November. Democrats here have eagerly noted that Ryan sponsored a similar bill in Congress.
Veteran Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said Obama must be careful not to look "extreme" in his use of reproductive issues, but that he's been lucky because Republicans keep bringing them up on their own.
Ciruli said the women swing voters the president is targeting "love politics to be above politics. They love for all of us to be together. They can be very put off by narrow appeals."
Both sides note that Obama's pitch on women's issues may also rally his sometimes disaffected base -- just as critical in a nail-biter race where few have yet to choose sides. Indeed, on a recent morning in this key swing suburb, every one of a half-dozen women interviewed on the contest had already made up her mind.
Colleen Faust, a 70-year-old retired teacher and Democrat, recalled writing a paper about a woman's right to birth control when she graduated college in 1965. "I grew up in pre-Roe v. Wade and I don't trust the Republicans," she said, referring to the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
Cherie Harris, 48, a self-identified strong conservative who owns a firearms and self-defense business, scoffed at arguments about women's health issues. "That's a big smoke screen," she said. "My 21 and 22-year-olds, how're they going to be able to find jobs? That's what I worry about as a woman."