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It has become a recurring theme for Mia Love during her congressional campaign appearances in recent weeks: "I'm a wife and mother, first and foremost."

Why has it become such an important part of her message?

The answer may be found in recent polling data that show Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson trailing Love by 10 points among women — a demographic group that he has won by wide margins in his past several elections.

If Matheson can't turn that tide, the 12-year congressman — running in the newly created 4th District instead of his more familiar 2nd District — may find himself handed his first electoral loss.

"Women were a source of strength to Jim Matheson in 2010, but in 2012, women may well swing to Mia Love," said Adam Brown, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. "The outcome of this race probably depends on how women vote."

Matheson said that, based on his own polling, he doesn't believe he is trailing Love at all and "There's no way I'm behind by double digits among women." He said he is confident he will win among women and men, in part because of Love's proposals to cut federal education funding, special education funding and college loans.

"When it comes to my support for making sure every kid has a chance to succeed, I think that's just a powerful issue," he said. "Often the difference between candidates aren't that significant and it's just polar opposites on this issue."

Love said she believes women like her message and the fact she is a mother.

"All of the same issues that are important to other women are important to me, and I think that's important," she said. "I also don't think it helps when he turns around and tries to be condescending to me in terms of my experience. I had more experience than he ever had before he ran, so that's coming off just not good for him."

Data gathered by the Utah College Exit Polls in 2010 showed that Matheson won among women by 12 percentage points en route to a 4.4 percentage point victory over Republican Morgan Philpot. Matheson lost among men by six points.

In 2008, he won the female vote by 35 percentage points in trouncing Bill Dew. In 2006, he won among women by 15 points.

But a recent Dan Jones poll for KSL and the Deseret News showed Matheson trailing Love — his first female opponent in 12 years — 51 percent to 41 percent among women.

Among men, Matheson is doing slightly better than 2010, trailing Love by two points.

Brown said it's not too surprising that women, who make up more than half the voting public, appear drawn to a female candidate, since women are so severely underrepresented in political office, both nationally and in Utah — where only 16 percent of state legislators are women.

Peter Watkins, who worked in the press office under President George W. Bush and now teaches political communications at the University of Utah, said closing the gender gap could be tough for Matheson.

"We've seen Congressman Matheson's wife appear in his ads and appear with his mother at campaign events, but beyond those aesthetics, I really think the main focus of Utah voters this cycle is on Mitt Romney and the presidential election," Watkins said. "There might not be much any Democratic candidate could do in this state, regardless of gender."

But former Congresswoman Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, said she thinks women could swing back to Matheson if they understand Love's position on issues they care about and plans to cut programs they have relied on for "basic economic health."

"A Mia Love world would be bad for women, worse for children and, as a result, it undermines all of our futures. I can't imagine why any woman would vote for her," Shepherd said. "I don't think they're understanding that that's what she's saying."

Twitter: @RobertGehrke