He co-sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act, which seeks to address the wage gap between men and women. Last month, he spoke at a State House protest against the "war on women." And a couple of weeks later, he brought in Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who co-chairs the congressional women's caucus, for his annual women's luncheon, which drew double last year's crowd and netted some $35,000.

As the campaign wears on, the Cicilline campaign will almost certainly pour significant resources into mailers and advertising focused on women's issues. And the Congressman should have the full weight of the Democratic message machine behind him; President Obama's campaign staff has already made it clear that abortion and contraception will figure prominently in the national narrative.

But it's not clear that the "war on women" message has quite the mojo Democrats imagine. On the national scene, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is closing the (still significant) gender gap with President Obama. And last month, when a Kaiser Family Foundation poll asked women voters across the country whether there is "a wide-scale effort to limit women's reproductive health choices and services," just 31 percent said "yes."

There is reason to suspect that the number is a bit higher in Rhode Island; the poll found liberals, Democrats, and Catholics, all in ample supply in the Ocean State, more likely to see a war on women.

But Jennifer Lawless, a former Brown University political science professor who ran as a pro-choice alternative to Congressman James Langevin in 2006, says issues like abortion and contraception work better as fundraising levers in Rhode Island than as tools to drive turnout at the polls.


Still, she added, these issues taken in toto — and reinforced with a Democratic advertising blitz — could be used to build a broader case that the GOP doesn't care about women.

It is a message that clearly worries Republicans, national and local. Here in Rhode Island, Cicilline's GOP challenger recently staged a "Women for Doherty" rally, condemning the congressman's "inflammatory partisan rhetoric and attempts to create gender conflict."

"If there is a war on women," Doherty said in a statement, "I'll be leading the charge in their defense."

Gemma, for his part, has gone out of his way to say that while he is "personally pro-life," he won't take any action in Congress to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

But whatever their concerns, the Gemma and Doherty camps believe the state's struggling economy will drive the campaign — drowning out the incumbent's messages on abortion, contraception, and the like.

And they may be right.

The Kaiser poll asked, in open-ended fashion, which issues respondents would like to hear about in the presidential election this fall. Six in 10 women cited the economy or jobs, with heath care (23 percent) and social issues (12 percent) well behind; just 5 percent specifically cited abortion or other women's issues.

Those kinds of numbers are heartening to conservatives everywhere. Indeed, Romney's top brass is counting on the big, top-line concern with the economy to trump an Obama campaign that will look a lot like Cicilline's: targeting women, Latinos, and students.

But if it will be difficult for Democrats to pivot away from the uncomfortable topic of the economy — and, in Cicilline's case, the trust issue — then Republicans are doing all they can to help out.

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