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Will Campaign Shift from 'War on Women' to 'Women Who War'?

But it's not an issue on which Democrats can claim they're unilaterally pushing for women's rights.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, in his February speech to CPAC, noted that his daughter, an Iraq veteran, got the job done without emotions getting in the way.

“There were a couple of times when she’d call and tell me about the small arms fire that she’d encountered, either in her Humvee or in the Blackhawk,” McDonnell said. “And yes, I did get a little bit emotional. But she didn’t. She got the job done.”

In February, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) wrote Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, urging him to "go further" in opening combat roles for women.

"As a 32-year member of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, I believe women should be able to serve in front line positions if they desire," Brown wrote. "I am mindful of the fact that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of 140 women serving as Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen. Their service was honorable and reflective of the day-to-day reality of modern warfare and the contributions made by female service members."

"Closing these opportunities to women affect their ability to develop a career path in the military and advance to higher ranks," the senator added. "We have an obligation to expand the professional opportunities available to women, especially considering their sacrifices. Doing so in my view would improve military effectiveness, not detract from it."

But where do the presidential contenders stand, and will it make a difference in campaign 2012 when greater issues of women's rights and defense readiness are at play?

It's Obama's Pentagon that is taking an incremental approach to women in combat roles as it simultaneously hails the lifting of the Clinton-era "Don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays serving openly in the military.

But Obama has been relatively quiet on the issue of women in combat. His only hint at the issue was in this month's commencement address at Barnard College, where he dropped a nugget of combat into a greater glass-ceiling meme. “Until a girl can imagine herself, can picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combatant commander, she won’t become one," he said.

Romney said in February's CNN debate in Mesa, Ariz., that he would "look to the people who are serving in the military to give the best assessment of where women can serve."

He said that "women have the capacity to serve in our military in positions of significance and responsibility," then steered his answer toward criticism of Obama's handling of defense policy and drawdowns.

What could push the question of women in combat to the forefront more than acts of Congress, though, is the same way in which DADT found itself in hot water: when the Log Cabin Republicans brought suit against the policy.

Last Wednesday, two female Army Reserve officers sued the Pentagon in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over the combat ban, alleging the government violates the constitutional rights of servicewomen by excluding them from certain ground combat units and other positions solely on the basis of their gender. Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin and Col. Ellen Haring charge that current policies have hindered their career advancement.

The lawsuit stems from a University of Virginia School of Law project, named after Battle of Monmouth fighter Molly Pitcher, that seeks to overturn the combat ban.

"We want to eliminate this last vestige of formal discrimination against women by the federal government, and ensure that women in the military have the same opportunities and the same obligations as men," professor Anne Coughlin said in a statement. "No other employer in the country may tell a woman that she is barred from the job merely because she is a woman. It is time for the Pentagon to stop relying on sex as a proxy for fitness to serve."