PARKER, Colo. Sarah Formato cuddled the whiny 3-year-old on her lap and cast her thoughts back to 2008, when she had voted for Barack Obama.
"Politicians are in the pockets of big companies," she said. "Obama understood the problem. He wasn't going for that."
Today, Formato's enthusiasm has waned. "He hasn't changed anything," she complained.
Nonetheless, she added with a shrug, "I would give him another shot."
The president's fierce struggle for re-election hinges in part on women such as Formato, whose support has turned lukewarm. The 31-year-old stay-at-home mom lives in a swing district in a swing state -- the sprawling suburbs of Arapahoe County, southeast of Denver.
Few doubt that Obama will win a majority of female votes nationwide, as he did in 2008. The question is whether he will capture enough of them in key states to offset a comparative lack of enthusiasm among men. And the cracks in his support among women appear to depend on whether they have children or not.
According to a national Reuters/Ipsos poll of 25- to 45-year-olds, mothers tend to differ from women without children on issues ranging from the economy, taxes and military spending to healthcare and birth control -- as well as on presidential candidates.
Childless working women favor Obama over Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee, by a striking 20 points, 46 percent to 26 percent. "Obama has done pretty well, stimulating the economy, getting out of Iraq and investing in healthcare," said Joanna Giddens, 27, who works for a Denver nonprofit and can't afford health insurance.
Working mothers were less likely to favor the president, by 42 percent to 34 percent. Stay-at-home mothers such as Formato, along with unemployed mothers, gave the president only a 5-point margin: 37 percent to 32 percent.
What the groups have in common is that, so far, no more than three out of 10 of the women polled support Romney.
"I like that Romney is a family man and his wife is a stay-at-home mom," said Formato who postponed her nursing career to care for her children. "But I'm not 100 percent sure what he stands for."
JOBS FIRST, PRO-CHOICE OPTION SECOND
In 2008 women made up 53 percent of the electorate, and Obama won their vote by 13 points over John McCain, compared to his overall victory of 7 points.
Then in the 2010 congressional elections, women voted Republican by a narrow margin. They helped elect a GOP-controlled House that has sought to thwart the president's agenda.
Today, Obama and Romney are neck and neck in the polls, and both are furiously courting female votes.
"It's a scary time to be a woman," says a thirty something woman in an Obama ad that aired in swing states. A narrator explains: "Romney opposes requiring insurance coverage for contraception, and Romney supports overturning Roe versus Wade," the 1973 Supreme Court decision affirming the right to abortion.
In another spot launched last week the Obama campaign aired footage of Romney saying, "Planned Parenthood, we're going to get rid of that," and pledging to cut off funding for the group.
In Denver Wednesday, the president gave a speech focused on women, saying, "When it comes to a woman's right to make her own healthcare choices ... you deserve a president who will fight to keep it that way." He was introduced by Sandra Fluke, the former Georgetown University student who has campaigned for contraception coverage.
Democrats are accusing Republicans of a "war on women." Romney has responded by homing in on women's financial insecurity. "The real war on women is being waged by the Obama administration's failure on the economy," he says.
On Wednesday, Romney announced a new "Women for Mitt Coalition" headed up by his wife, Ann, who is more popular than he is, according to some polls. Three prominent women are billed to speak at the GOP convention this month: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Colorado, where polls show the president with a slight lead, is among a handful of states experiencing the most intense barrage of negative ads. However, a score of women interviewed there over several days said they mute or fast-forward through the vitriol, and few were aware of the controversies over birth control or abortion.
Most were pro-choice on abortion and said all insurance plans should cover contraception, but they viewed these issues as secondary to jobs, education and general healthcare reform.
At Little Monkey Bizness, an indoor children's play area and coffee shop in a strip mall just south of Arapahoe County, Formato and other mothers were chatting or checking email on their laptops. Their offspring painted figures on butcher paper and bounced off inflated slides, shrieking with delight.
It was right out of Norman Rockwell, but it masked a sense of deep anxiety about the country and its politics - even before a man calling himself "the Joker" opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, the largest city in the county.
"It feels like we're going the wrong way," said Stephanie Braden, a special education teacher who is married to a diesel mechanic. "I don't know how to fix that." She leans toward Romney but is disturbed by his attacks on teachers' unions and his support for vouchers. "I'm not sure I love him," she said. "I have to do more homework."
Among the women in the Reuters/Ipsos poll, the most pessimistic were stay-at-home and unemployed moms: 61 percent said the country was on the wrong track, and only 20 percent thought it was headed in the right direction.
Working mothers and childless working women were slightly more optimistic, but still felt the country was on the wrong track by more than two to one.
Obama visited some of the victims of the Aurora shootings in a local hospital less than a month after traveling to the state to tour a neighborhood devastated by wildfires. "He was respectful to people in the area," Formato said, noting that the president had called off his campaign ads. "I liked what he had to say."
The visits reinforced the president's key strength: his likability. "Obama is trying his best," said Shannon Phillips, who was feeding lunch to her three children at Little Monkey Bizness. A registered Republican, she plans to vote for him again. "I feel really good about him as a person. He is not extreme. He seems very calm and at peace."
As for Romney, she added, "I get the impression he's wealthy, and he wants the wealthy to be wealthy."
Tricia Lancaster, sitting nearby with a rambunctious preschooler, also voted for Obama despite her Republican registration. She regrets it. "I still like the guy as a person," she said. "But I don't know what he's done."
The disappointment is widespread. In Reuters/Ipsos poll, only 23 percent of non-working moms approved of Obama's handling of the presidency. Working moms and childless working women were somewhat more approving, at 26 percent and 29 percent respectively.
So would Lancaster endorse Romney? "I don't know if putting someone else in office would make a difference," she said.
Mellany Godwin, who was catching up with office email as her 5-year-old played nearby, plans to vote for Romney, "reluctantly." She is wary of his Mormonism, calls herself pro-choice and adds, "Men should do very little talking about women's ‘hoo-hoos,' as my Mom used to say."
But Godwin, an insurance claims supervisor, is glad Romney will "get rid of Obamacare" (the 2010 Affordable Care Act). "Forcing people to buy health insurance doesn't get us to where we want to be," she said.
Godwin, 35, also approves of Romney's fiscal conservatism. "If somebody knows how to make money, that's someone you want steering your finances," she said of the GOP candidate, a former private equity executive with an estimated fortune of $250 million. "I've read that the federal government pays $150 for a hammer."
UNAWARE OF OBAMACARE IMPACT
For women such as Nicole Esquibel, healthcare is the No. 1 issue. She dropped out of school to care for her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34. Today, her mother is cancer-free but has no health insurance, and neither does Esquibel. "It's scary," she said, adding that doctors have recommended she undergo a CAT scan because of her family history, but she can't afford it.
Esquibel, a 25-year-old gymnastics coach, lives with her boyfriend, who is a janitor, and their six-year-old son. Her boyfriend recently got a 50-cent per hour raise, which lifted him above the threshold for Medicaid. He too is now uninsured but would qualify again if Colorado opts to accept Obamacare funding to expand its Medicaid program.
Esquibel will vote for Obama, she said, because "he is fighting for the working class." The Democratic National Committee has sent a million pieces of mail to women in swing states, noting that the Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to cover maternity care, to stop charging higher rates to women, and to offer mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, and other preventive services without co-pays.
Yet most of the women interviewed said they were unaware of how Obamacare might affect them. In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, working and non-working mothers opposed the law by 8 and 10 points respectively. Childless working women were evenly split between those who were for and against it.
Paradoxically, the split on Obamacare hasn't seemed to help Romney, who criticizes the law as a costly federal intrusion. When asked which candidate had a better approach to healthcare, three out of 10 of the women chose Obama. About a quarter picked Romney.
Women are ambivalent too in their views on taxes and spending. In the Reuters/Ispos poll, more than three-quarters of the women opposed cutting Medicare, education, law enforcement, or alternative-energy spending to balance the budget. About two-thirds opposed military spending cuts.
But when asked which approach would best reduce the deficit, cutting programs or raising taxes, a plurality of mothers chose cutting programs. By contrast, a plurality of childless working women preferred hiking taxes, a position in tune with Obama's efforts to collect more revenue from households with $250,000 or more in annual income.
Formato, the stay-at-home mom who would give Obama another shot, is one who adamantly opposes deep cuts in services. "We don't pay teachers enough," she said. "We don't pay social workers enough. There needs to be a stronger safety net. Everyone cries for more cops, but if we need money for these things, that means we are socialists? It drives me crazy."
She is married to a midlevel executive at a successful company. Their income is comfortable, but her "American dream" feels tentative. "I have a house, a car, but all that could fall apart," she said. "I've seen so many of my friends' husbands lose their jobs. I've seen their houses foreclosed."
More women in the Reuters/Ispos poll said Obama has a better plan for the economy than Romney, but Formato's outlook would offer little comfort to his camp.
"You think the economy is getting better, and then it seems to fall apart all over again," she said. "It is like a virus spreading across the planet. All the things that got us into the big mess in 2008 haven't changed."
She paused, and, just as she seemed to be channeling Romney's talking points, she added, "I think Obama needs more time."
(Editing by Lee Aitken and Prudence Crowther)