Presidential politics spilled into the politics of motherhood Thursday as a back-and-forth involving Mitt Romney's wife and a Democratic strategist sparked a broader, cultural debate about the roles and responsibilities of women in the workplace.

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WASHINGTON — Presidential politics spilled into the politics of motherhood Thursday as a combative back-and-forth involving Mitt Romney’s wife and a Democratic strategist quickly sparked a broader, cultural debate about the roles and responsibilities of women in the workplace.

The strategist, Hilary Rosen, who has close ties to President Obama, apologized Thursday afternoon to Ann Romney, a stay-at-home mother of five sons, after setting off a firestorm on Twitter and cable-news programs by saying Romney had “never worked a day in her life.”

The apology to “anyone else who was offended” followed Romney’s response that Rosen “should have come to my house when those five boys were causing so much trouble. It wasn’t so easy.” Romney added, “My career choice was to be a mother.”

The public debate between Rosen and Romney echoed well beyond the campaign trail, where women regularly struggle with questions of how to balance work outside the home, their family responsibilities and the emotional responses that accompany such choices.

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Obama sought to repair the damage in an interview Thursday. “There’s no tougher job than being a mom,” he told a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, TV station. “Anybody who would argue otherwise, I think, probably needs to rethink their statement.”

First lady Michelle Obama gingerly weighed in earlier on Twitter, writing that “every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected.”

The latest installment of the Mommy Wars was fueled by the political stakes on both sides as Mitt Romney and President Obama begin waging a seven-month battle for the White House. Their advisers see independents, particularly women, in closely contested states as critical.

Campaign strategists appeared to view the public debate as a moment freighted with both potential danger and opportunity. A Romney spokeswoman lashed out at Rosen on Thursday before the apology came.

“Not only was this Obama confidante wrong to attack a mother who chooses to stay home, so many women have lost their jobs under the Obama economy, they don’t even have that choice,” said Andrea Saul, the Romney spokeswoman.

Obama’s top political advisers moved rapidly to distance the president from Rosen, noting she is not a paid adviser to the campaign or to the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Vice President Joseph Biden said on MSNBC that Rosen had made “an outrageous assertion” and Obama’s most senior campaign aides posted Twitter messages expressing their outrage moments after she made the comments.

“I could not disagree with Hilary Rosen any more strongly,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager. “Her comments were wrong, and family should be off-limits. She should apologize.”

Rosen’s partner, Elizabeth Birch, was among her few defenders, writing on The Huffington Post late Thursday afternoon: “Hilary Rosen is an amazing, loving and dedicated mother to our twins. … Stay-at-home moms — and dads — are an amazing gift to any child. And Hilary stayed at home for a couple of years when our kids were young for that reason. But almost no one can afford it. And that is what all parents have to figure out in these economic times.”

Rosen is a managing director at the political consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker, one of whose founders, Anita Dunn, was a senior adviser to Obama and, this year, to the DNC. The DNC has paid SKD Knickerbocker $120,000 in this election cycle, financial-disclosure records show. A party official said the services were provided by Dunn.

Other party officials said Rosen has had no formal advisory role, though she has attended some meetings informally. A prominent Democrat in Washington, D.C., Rosen regularly appears at social functions and has been a repeat visitor to Obama’s White House.

In her initial comments Wednesday night on CNN, where she is a political analyst, Rosen questioned Ann Romney’s ability to relate to financial struggles of women who have little choice but to work full time while rearing children. She pressed that case for hours on Twitter, in an online column and on TV.

“This is not about Ann Romney,” Rosen said Thursday morning on CNN. “This is about the waitress at a diner someplace in Nevada who has two kids whose day-care funding is being cut off because of the Romney-Ryan budget, and she doesn’t know what to do.”

Added Rosen: “This isn’t about whether Ann Romney or I or other women of some means can afford to make a choice to stay home and raise kids. Most women in America, let’s face it, don’t have that choice.”

In an appearance hours later on Fox News, Ann Romney insisted “I know what it’s like to struggle.”

“Maybe I haven’t struggled as much financially as some people have,” said Romney, who has dealt with breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. “I can tell you and promise you that I’ve had struggles in my life.”

Rosen’s CNN comment came at the end of a day in which Obama and Mitt Romney had engaged in an intense volley of charges about which man’s policies would be better for women in the United States. Romney is trailing badly among women in public-opinion surveys.

On Wednesday, his advisers gave Democrats an opening after fumbling a reporter’s question on whether Romney supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Democrats pounced, forcing the GOP campaign to insist Romney backed equal pay.

But Rosen’s comments threatened to undermine any progress Obama’s campaign had made Wednesday.

The comments lit up Twitter, where users began intensely debating Rosen’s remarks, with many accusing her of failing to respect the work that women do at the home. The about-face from Rosen took about 16 hours.

In an online column published late Wednesday on The Huffington Post, Rosen wrote that “I don’t need lectures from the (Republican National Committee) on supporting women and fighting to increase opportunities for women; I’ve been doing it my whole career. If they want to attack me and distract the public’s attention away from their nominee’s woeful record, it just demonstrates how much they just don’t get it.”

By 2 p.m. EDT Thursday, she issued a statement saying she had been trying to respond to Mitt Romney’s “poor record on the plight of women’s financial struggles.” And she said that “as a partner in a firm full of women who work outside of the home as well as stay-at-home mothers, all with plenty of children, gender equality is not a talking point for me. It is an issue I live every day.”

Information from The Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers and Seattle Times staff is included in this report.

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