Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney badly needs to attract women voters if he is to win the White House, but Republican policies on abortion, contraception and gay marriage risk alienating many.

Republican women gathered from across the United States in Tampa, Florida for the presidential nomination convention had little patience with that view, or with Democratic accusations that the party is waging a "war on women."

Instead, some women partisans here insisted that a Republican party that embraces a pro-life stance was more likely to appeal to a growing number of female voters and -- they hoped -- to beat Barack Obama in November's election.

"Our party is a party committed to life. Protecting and preserving life," said Cleta Mitchell, who attended a forum Tuesday for pro-life activists on the sidelines of this week's Republican National Convention.

"The Democratic party seems to think that women think only with their reproductive organs, that we have no brains. It's so insulting. I can't imagine that they think women will vote on contraception when our country is on the verge of a fiscal cliff," said Mitchell, who heads an organization in Washington for conservative lawyers.

Late Tuesday, Romney's not-so-secret weapon to win over women voters, his wife Ann, hailed American wives and mothers as unsung heroes who give of themselves tirelessly and thanklessly in a well-received speech.

"If you listen carefully, you'll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It's how it is, isn't it?" Ann Romney said. "It's the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right.

"It's the moms of this nation -- single, married, widowed -- who really hold this country together. We're the mothers, we're the wives, we're the grandmothers, we're the big sisters, we're the little sisters, we're the daughters," she said.

"You're the ones who always have to do a little more."

In a poll this week by the Washington Post and ABC News, 53 percent of respondents said Obama would do a better job dealing with women's issues, compared to only 32 percent for Romney.

CNN put the gap at a narrower but still worrisome 54 to 42 percent. Surveys show Romney has a particularly acute problem attracting young, single women.

Republicans were burned on the abortion issue earlier this month when a Missouri lawmaker with a staunchly anti-abortion position uttered the view that women's bodies had a way of shutting down to prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape."

The comments by House member and Senate candidate Todd Akin were controversial but don't reflect how people in the party think generally, Mitchell said, rejecting the idea that the controversy had been divisive for Republicans.

"Our party is not being torn asunder. The Democratic party is the party of abortion. It is the party of murdering innocent life and that is what they believe. They are extremists," she said.

Some experts believe Republicans have erred in focusing on social issues like abortion, which they viewed as settled for more than three decades, since the Roe versus Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973.

"It's the law of the US. No one is changing that," said Anita McBride, a former official in president George W. Bush's administration who currently lectures at American University in Washington, DC.

McBride expressed frustration that the argument over abortion continues to siphon away so much attention from more pressing issues facing the party and the nation.

"Why we have allowed this to become the women's issue that we are talking about when our economy is going over a cliff is beyond me. I happen to be pro-life, but I respect pro-choice people," she told AFP.

Shalia Lankford, wife of Tennessee delegate Monty Lankford, said she was proud of her party's positions, even if they made it difficult to appeal to moderate Republicans and independent voters.

"A lot of it goes back to faith issues and what we think is morally right in the sight of God," she told AFP. "A woman's true heart and nurturing spirit is for the life of her child."

At the convention on Tuesday, Republicans approved a staunchly conservative party platform that defended heterosexual marriage and rejected abortion.

The 60-page document, subtitled "We Believe in America" affirmed that marriage is between one man and one woman and stressed the party's strong commitment to valuing every human life, even in embryonic form.

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said he thought the party's focus on social issues would be a net gain at the ballot box come November.

"We have one of the strongest platforms on marriage and life that we've ever had," he said.