WASHINGTON — Jobs, the national debt and securing social entitlements still dominate the 2012 campaign season, but when the two presidential candidates squared off in their second high-stakes debate, the president mentioned Planned Parenthood four times, lambasting his opponent for pledging to defund the abortion provider in the United States.

As a tight presidential race nears the finish line, the president has campaigned with Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Cecile Richards, and his administration backed two legal challenges that recently blocked state laws defunding the organization in Arizona and Indiana.

During an Oct. 24  appearance on The Tonight Show, the president told host Jay Leno that among the issues “at stake in this election” were attacks on “Planned Parenthood, where, you know, that organization provides millions of women cervical-cancer screenings, mammograms — all kinds of basic health care.”

Yet the president’s support from women voters appears to be shrinking.

On Oct. 23, Gallup released its latest survey of U.S. voters, which charted the slippage in support: “Obama currently leads Romney by eight percentage points among women, whereas he led McCain by 14 among women in 2008.”

With the election outcome now too close to call, Planned Parenthood has thrown its full weight behind Obama, directing an estimated $12 million to his re-election.

“Planned Parenthood, through its political-action affiliates, has spent more on this election than any in the past — more than $12 million, with about half the money going for TV ads in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and other battleground states,” The Associated Press reported on Oct. 19.

Further, Richards has taken a leave of absence from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund to stump for Obama full time, joining the president in Virginia and speaking at rallies in Florida, two battleground states. Richards has also appeared in a campaign video that embraces the Democrat — “Since day one, President Obama has stood with women” — and attacks the GOP candidate for pledging to defund Planned Parenthood — “Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is threatening not just to take us back four years, but more than 40 years.”

David O’Steen, the executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, points to the mutually supportive relationship between Obama and Planned Parenthood and asserts that it’s as much about money as ideology.

“According to Planned Parenthood’s 2010 annual report, it received $480-million dollars from government grants and reimbursement at the state and federal level,” noted O’Steen.

Planned Parenthood, he asserted, “is spending close to $12 million in an election where the purpose is to elect candidates that will give them more money. If you had a like situation involving an industry disfavored by the mainstream press, it would be presented as politics at its worse.”

The president, however, presents his support for Planned Parenthood as evidence of his commitment to women.

Over the past year, the presdient's  defense of Planned Parenthood, which faces efforts to bar federal funding of its businesses in a slew of states, has emerged  as a centerpiece of his outreach to single women, a key demographic. With this group in mind, on Oct. 25, the Obama campaign released a controversial spot, “The First Time,” which shows Lena Dunham, the star of the television show Girls, equating a vote for the president with having sexual relations for the first time. The commercial expresses concern about securing birth control, but does not mention Planned Parenthood.

At times, the Obama campaign has equated attacks on the abortion provider with ongoing efforts to repeal Roe v. Wade, and, at times, the message pivots to present the organization as a key provider of comprehensive health care for poor women.

Obama outlined the latter argument during the second presidential debate.

“When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for not just contraceptive care. They rely on it for mammograms, for cervical-cancer screenings,” said the president, whose suggestion that the organization provides mammograms has been thoroughly debunked. Still, the president repeated that claim during his appearance on The Tonight Show.

But Obama’s support for the organization goes much deeper than campaign rhetoric.

This month, two separate legal challenges backed by his administration succeeded in blocking state efforts to defund the abortion provider in Indiana and Arizona.

On Oct. 23, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago effectively upheld a previous ruling that found Indiana’s 2011 law violated federal regulations by preventing patients from selecting the health-care “provider of their choice.”

The Indiana law marked the first state effort to bar Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers from receiving Medicaid funds for other health services because it was a abortion provider; the organization stood to lose an estimated $2 million in annual state funding.

Planned Parenthood contracts to provide specific services under Title X, a 1970 law that promotes family planning and preventive care like breast exams and pap tests. The organization is not licensed to provide mammograms, and the federal government is barred from providing taxpayer funds to cover most abortions.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department filed a brief in support of the legal challenge to Indiana’s law, outlining an argument that was echoed in the three-panel circuit court’s ruling this month.

“The defunding law excludes Planned Parenthood from Medicaid for a reason unrelated to its fitness to provide medical services, violating its patients’ statutory right to obtain medical care from the qualified provider of their choice,” stated the ruling.

Indiana officials have argued that federal law bars the use of Medicaid funds to cover most abortions, and by funding other procedures provided by Planned Parenthood, the state ended up subsidizing abortions. Organizations like Planned Parenthood could easily resolve the issue “by ceasing or separating its operations that perform abortions,” said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels when he signed the bill.

In Arizona, the Justice Department also provided a brief in another challenge to the state law defunding abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. On Oct. 19, a federal court in Phoenix barred state efforts to apply the law, while legal proceedings continue.

However, the administration has failed to prevent the state of Texas from upholding its law barring funds to the organization: On Oct. 25, an appeals court ruled in favor of the law, though the Department of Health and Human Services had written a letter to the state government opposing the law.

Steven Aden, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a public interest group that has helped to defend state efforts to defund the organization in Arizona, Texas and Indiana, said the Obama administration “has intervened in court cases in Indiana, Texas and Arizona to state its position that any move to strip dollars from the organization is unconstitutional and against federal law.” 

Aden noted that the administration had employed other strategies for aiding Planned Parenthood affiliates that have been denied Title X funds by state law.

“When New Jersey defunded Planned Parenthood, the Obama administration provided federal dollars. In New Hampshire, when the three-person body responsible for state contracts canceled the contracts with Planned Parenthood, the Obama administration moved directly to fund it with federal dollars,” said Aden.

Right now, the president’s re-election effort is running a commercial in Ohio that targets Romney’s pledge to bar funding to Planned Parenthood, and Aden suggested that the campaign spot underscored the close ties between the administration and the organization.

 “Obviously, the Obama campaign has become something of a proxy for the abortion industry,” Aden asserted. “The ad argues that a vote for Romney is a vote to defund Planned Parenthood.” The implication is that “the president will protect” the organization. “They are working hand and glove.”

The president’s defense of the organization is often anchored in the assertion that Planned Parenthood provides essential health-care services, and his Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services have made this argument in their briefs on behalf of legal challenges to state laws that block funding to the group. But some Obama campaign commercials connect attacks on Planned Parenthood with efforts to repeal Roe v. Wade, suggesting that access to abortion, not general health care, is at risk.

Richard Doerflinger, the chief lobbyist on life issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, questioned the effort to deflect attention away from a key mission of the organization.

“Planned Parenthood operates the largest network of abortion clinics in the country, performing about one-third of all abortions in the U.S. Abortion is its answer for unintended pregnancy in about 95% of cases,” said Doerflinger.

“While Planned Parenthood also provides some services that are beneficial for women’s health, no woman should have to report to the local abortion clinic in order to get the government’s help in meeting those legitimate needs.”

Doerflinger described Planned Parenthood as an aggressive advocate for abortion rights on Capitol Hill and in the courts.

“It is no accident that many of the Supreme Court cases on abortion have ‘Planned Parenthood’ in the title, because PP’s affiliates are the first and most formidable plaintiffs against any law that could limit the spread of abortion," he said.

During the campaign season, the Susan B. Anthony List, which backs pro-life candidates across the nation, has taken aim at the Obama administration’s efforts to defend Planned Parenthood, airing a commercial that attacks his support for the organization.

“Planned Parenthood does not provide comprehensive health care for poor women; other facilities in the state can do that. We want women to get comprehensive health care, and we don’t want taxpayers funding abortion,” said Marilyn Musgrave, the vice president of governmental affairs for the group and a former Republican congresswoman from Colorado. 

Over the past two years, Live Action, the pro-life activist group led by Lila Rose, has released a series of videos that challenged partisan efforts to present Planned Parenthood as a reputable organization that fills a desperate need for basic health services in poor neighborhoods.

Though the Planned Parenthood and its political allies argued that Indiana’s law defunding the group would result in the denial of essential health care to poor women, Live Action released one video that contradicted that claim.

Last year, Live Action’s video series that showed Planned Parenthood staff appearing to facilitate the sexual trafficking of minors and failing to report such activities to the authorities helped ignite state efforts to defund the group.

Now, Rose plans to keep the spotlight on the organization’s actual record.

“President Obama, as part of his re-election bid, says that women need him to be in office so he can fight for their health care. It is more crucial than ever that women know the truth about Planned Parenthood and their practices.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.