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Mommy Wars in the presidential race: What is work?

WASHINGTON — The Mommy Wars in the middle of the 2012 presidential race?

Ann Romney fought back Thursday after a Democratic consultant suggested she isn't qualified to discuss the economy because she "hasn't worked a day in her life." The White House, in instant damage-control mode, declared that no one there was saying such a thing. Michelle Obama tweeted her personal support of all mothers.

With women's votes expected to be crucial in November, the remark by consultant Hilary Rosen ignited an immediate uproar: attacks by Mitt Romney's Republican campaign along with the disavowals from President Barack Obama's allies.

Ann Romney, the Republican presidential contender's wife, made her Twitter debut on Thursday in response to the contention she'd never worked: "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work."

The consultant apologized later, on TV.

In the meantime, the backlash to her comment was brutal and swift, crackling across Twitter, cable television and old-fashioned telephone lines. It appeared to have reignited the debate, at least for now, over choices many women make as they juggle motherhood with the work most need to pay bills, college tuition and a semblance of financial security for their families.

Michelle Obama tweeted, "Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected. - mo." Such tweets tagged "mo" are from the first lady, a mother of two with a law degree.

Though polls show President Obama running ahead of Romney among female voters, Republicans are targeting married women and mothers for possible support in the election. The GOP tried to link Rosen to the White House, while Obama's camp tried, sometimes awkwardly, to distance him from the fight.

It all started Wednesday night with Rosen's comments about Mrs. Romney. "His wife has actually never worked a day in her life," Rosen had said. "She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of women in this country are facing."

On Thursday, Ann Romney noted on Fox News that her career choice was being a mother, and while she hasn't faced financial hardship she has confronted the ordeals of cancer and multiple sclerosis. Finally, she noted that her husband has said her work is more important than his as family breadwinner.

"He would say, 'My job is temporary. ... Your job is a forever job that's going to bring forever happiness," Ann Romney said. "Mitt respects women that make those different choices."

Two decades after Hillary Rodham Clinton famously declared that she could have stayed home and made cookies rather than pursue a career, the role of women in American society remains a hotly contested cultural question. It's a deeply personal matter to anyone with children. And by midday Thursday, it seemed they were all weighing in.

Rosen is one such parent. She describes herself on her Twitter feed as a "mom with opinions" and is a longtime Democratic consultant and CNN political contributor. She's a managing director of SKD Knickerbocker, a communications and public relations firm she joined in 2010 that has been paid $120,000 by the Democratic National Committee in this election cycle, financial disclosure records show. A party official said the services were provided by former Obama adviser Anita Dunn, another managing director at the firm.

However close Rosen is or isn't to Obama and his Democrats, her comments about Ann Romney clearly caused them problems.

Vice President Joe Biden said on MSNBC that she had made "an outrageous assertion." David Axelrod, Obama's top campaign strategist, tweeted that Rosen's comments were "inappropriate and offensive." The president's campaign manager, Jim Messina, said Rosen should apologize.

She initially refused to back down.

"I am raising children too," Rosen tweeted to Ann Romney. "But most young American women HAVE to BOTH earn a living AND raise children. You know that don't u?"

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, sought to link Rosen directly to Obama, saying she had visited the White House dozens of times.

Presidential spokesman Jay Carney struggled with that question.

"I know three, personally, women named Hilary Rosen, so I'm not sure that those represent the person we're talking about necessarily. So I really can't comment on the number of visits, since I'm not sure that's accurate," Carney told reporters at a White House briefing. "I don't know how many times she's been here."

Shortly afterward, Rosen apologized.

"I apologize to Ann Romney and anyone else who was offended," Rosen said in a statement. "Let's declare peace in this phony war and go back to focus on the substance."