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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and U.S. President Barack Obama trade barbs during the second debate. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and U.S. President Barack Obama trade barbs during the second debate. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)

What happened to talking about the economy? Add to ...

Stupidly, perhaps, it has not been about the economy.

From “binders” to Benghazi, seemingly secondary issues dominated the U.S. presidential race this week. That is odd, considering the economy is the overwhelming priority of voters and poses a colossal conundrum for whoever wins the Nov. 6 vote.

Yet, in the aftermath of the second presidential debate on Tuesday, President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney battled more over abortion and last month’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, than over jobs and the economy.

No one could blame Mr. Obama for seizing on Mr. Romney’s debate comment that, as governor of Massachusetts, he poured over “binders full of women” to fill top government jobs. The phrase spawned an Internet meme and underscored Mr. Romney’s sometimes distant relationship with 21st-century reality.

In an election that may come down to who women trust more, you might even call it a gaffe. The question is whether Mr. Romney can make up for it by persuading women that, though he may be a thoroughly unmodern man, he can fix the economy.

Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, that message was drowned out this week by the back-and-forth on abortion and contraception. It may seem astonishing that those issues could swing a presidential election in 2012. But Mr. Romney is shackled to his party’s extreme positions on reproductive rights and his own shifting stand on a woman’s right to choose.

Mr. Romney’s hefty advance among white men means that Mr. Obama needs to beat him significantly by double digits among women to keep his job. Hence, the President’s stump speech has been dominated by what satirist Stephen Colbert called “lady issues.” Mr. Obama spent the week noting that he has made it easier for women to sue in pay-discrimination cases and suggesting that access to abortion and birth control are on the line in this election.

During the primaries, Mr. Romney supported a Republican bill that would let employers exclude contraception coverage from employee health plans, overturning the requirement in Mr. Obama’s health-care law. The GOP legislation failed, but has come back to haunt Mr. Romney, amid suggestions that a Republican Congress would resurrect the bill.

“What [Mr. Romney] didn’t get is that making sure your insurance policy covers contraceptive care is an economic issue also,” Mr. Obama said at a Friday rally in Virginia. “I don’t think your boss should decide what’s best for your health and safety.”

The Obama campaign also saturated televisions in swing states this week with an ad that seizes on Mr. Romney’s comment, made during a 2007 Republican primary debate, that he would be “delighted” to sign legislation that bans all abortions. The ad did not include the rest of Mr. Romney’s remarks. He said such a ban “is not where we are as a country.”

The Romney campaign shot back with its own ad, using a former Obama supporter from Ohio who said she “researched” the GOP nominee’s positions on abortion and contraception and found them to be much more moderate than the Obama ads suggest.

“This issue’s important to me, but I’m more concerned about the debt our children will be left with,” the woman told the camera. “I voted for President Obama last time, but we just can’t afford four more years.”

However, Mr. Obama returned to the abortion theme at his Friday rally, warning his audience that Mr. Romney would appoint anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court: “You don’t want someone who needs to ask for binders of women. …You want a President who has already appointed two unbelievable women to the Supreme Court.”

If Mr. Obama seemed to win the week’s duelling on abortion, he remains vulnerable on his handling of the Benghazi attack. He bested Mr. Romney on the issue during Tuesday’s debate, but that was largely because he got a controversial assist from debate moderator Candy Crowley, not because his handling of the attack inspired confidence.

Mr. Obama’s Thursday appearance on The Daily Show, which was supposed to shore up his support among the Millennial Generation, instead turned into a nightmare for the administration.

“If four Americans get killed, it’s not optimal,” Mr. Obama said, agreeing with host Jon Stewart’s contention that the administration’s mixed messaging following the incident had been suboptimal. “What happens, during the course of a presidency is that the government is a big operation and, at any given time, something screws up.”

Mr. Obama will need to come up with a better answer by Monday’s final debate – which will focus on foreign policy – or he risks losing his advantage over Mr. Romney on national security.

Still, the discussions of abortion and Benghazi have been largely distractions that have allowed both candidates to shift the focus from what matters most in this election.

Two weeks before their critical choice, American voters deserve better.

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