Washington (CNN) -- A Democratic strategist apologized Thursday for a comment questioning Ann Romney's qualifications to advise her husband on women's economic issues, while the Romney campaign sought to exploit the controversy to help fix a gender gap problem in the race against President Barack Obama.
Hilary Rosen issued a statement after fellow Democrats, including a Twitter post on Michelle Obama's page, criticized her remarks the night before on CNN.
"I apologize to Ann Romney and anyone else who was offended," said the statement by Rosen, who is a CNN contributor. "Let's declare peace in this phony war and go back to focus on the substance."
In a later interview on CNN, Rosen said she "should not have chosen words that seemed to attack Ann Romney's choice in life" and that she hoped Mrs. Romney "understands I didn't mean it personally," adding "I was trying to talk about economic issues."
"This is going to be an ugly campaign season," Rosen told CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer."
On Wednesday night, Rosen said on CNN's "AC360" that Mitt Romney shouldn't be relying on his wife for guidance on economic issues affecting women.
"What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country, saying, 'Well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues, and when I listen to my wife, that's what I'm hearing,' " Rosen said. "Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life."
Rosen continued by saying Ann Romney had "never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing, in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school, and why do we worry about their future."
The strategist, speaking Thursday night on "AC360," said a debate over economic stances of the candidates is more important than the firestorm over her remarks.
"The idea that I would create a division between stay-at-home moms and working moms is just silly. That has nothing to do with what I said," Rosen told Anderson Cooper.
She also said she is not an adviser to the White House or the Democratic National Committee.
Republicans slammed Rosen's comments as disparaging to stay-at-home mothers, and top Democrats, including Obama and his chief campaign adviser, also chimed in.
On Thursday, Twitter posts attributed to Michelle Obama and Democratic National Committee head Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz took exception with Rosen's remarks.
"Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected," the first lady tweeted.
Ann Romney told Fox News earlier Thursday that raising five boys was hard work, and she hears from women all the time about economic difficulties they face.
"Look, I know what it is like to struggle," said Romney, a cancer survivor who has multiple sclerosis. "If maybe I haven't struggled as much financially as some people have, I can tell you and promise you that I have had struggles in my life. And I would love to have people understand that Mitt and I have compassion for people that are struggling and that's why we are running. We care about those people that are struggling and we recognize that this economic recovery has been very weak."
The imbroglio occurred as the November presidential race took shape this week, with conservative challenger Rick Santorum suspending his campaign to make Mitt Romney the certain Republican nominee against Obama.
With polls repeatedly showing female voters favoring Obama over the former Massachusetts governor, Romney launched a harsh attack Wednesday on how the administration's economic policies hurt women.
Rosen's comments Wednesday night provided another opening for the Romney campaign, which made top surrogates available for a conference call with reporters Thursday to discuss the issue.
Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming said Rosen was a frequent White House visitor who was saying what the Obama campaign intended.
"Clearly they are using surrogate women, including Hilary Rosen, who is a paid spokesperson, to deliver messages about Republicans that the president does not want to deliver himself for fear of the backlash," Lummis said.
At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday he was unaware of how many times Rosen had visited. In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, Carney repeatedly emphasized Obama's policies on women, such as making the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act the first piece of legislation he signed into law.
Rosen's comments prompted immediate criticism Wednesday night on Twitter.
Within a few hours of her making them, Josh Romney posted that his mother "is one of the smartest, hardest working women I know" who "could have done anything with her life, chose to raise me."
The senior adviser to Obama's re-election bid, David Axelrod, called the remarks "inappropriate and offensive," while Obama deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, posted, "Families must be off limits on campaigns, and I personally believe stay-at-home moms work harder than most of us do."
Axelrod later told CNN's John King that the Romney campaign "jumped on (the comment) like a raft out in the deep blue sea because they were drowning under the weight of their own problems."
Before issuing her apology Thursday, Rosen told CNN that Republicans were attacking her as part of a strategy to divert attention from policies championed by Romney that will hurt women.
"The issue that I'm focusing on is does Mitt Romney have a vision for bringing women up economically and can he himself stop referring to his wife as his economic surrogate," Rosen said.
Her apology statement said: "Let's put the faux 'war against stay-at-home moms' to rest once and for all."
"As a mom, I know that raising children is the hardest job there is. As a pundit, I know my words on CNN last night were poorly chosen," the statement said. "In response to Mitt Romney on the campaign trail referring to his wife as a better person to answer questions about women than he is, I was discussing his lack of a record on the plight of women's financial struggles."
While Romney still needs several hundred delegates to clinch the GOP nomination, Santorum's departure from the race leaves his path free of obstacles.
However, Romney's campaign still struggles to generate enthusiasm among the GOP conservative base, which questions his more moderate stances as Massachusetts governor. In addition, a Washington Post/ABC News poll this week affirmed findings of other recent polls that Romney trails Obama among female voters.
Another poll released Thursday by Quinnipiac University showed Obama leading Romney in New Jersey, even under the hypothetical scenario that popular Republican Gov. Chris Christie was on the GOP ticket as Romney's running mate.
New Jersey is considered a solidly Democratic state in presidential general elections. The Quinnipiac poll also showed a Romney-Christie ticket trailing against Obama and Vice President Joe Biden among female voters.
The Republican presidential campaign has included a conservative shift to appeal to tea party voters in the primary and caucus season. However, some socially conservative polices opposing abortion and health care coverage for contraception appear to be raising concerns among female voters.
Democrats have seized on that dynamic by emphasizing Republican stances that they say harm equal treatment and opportunity for women. In response, the Romney campaign is targeting Obama's economic policies as being bad for women.
The "war over women" erupted in full force Wednesday, when Romney said Obama may not have started the recession but his policies extended it, which hurt women.
"He just made it worse, and made it last longer," Romney said. "And because it lasted longer, more and more women lost jobs, such that in his 3½ years, 92.3% of the people who lost jobs have been women. His failures have hurt women."
An analysis of federal labor statistics shows that the Romney claim is technically true, but lacks important context.
The number of nonfarm-employed women from January 2009, when Obama took office, to March 2012 fell far more than the number of employed men in that period. The total job loss for the period for both men and women combined was 740,000. The number of women who lost nonfarm jobs in that time was 683,000, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That amounts to 92.3% -- the figure Romney cited. However, the statistic does not reflect that men constituted a much larger chunk of the job loss pie in the year leading up to Obama's inauguration.
In the 2008 calendar year, men lost a total of 2.7 million nonfarm jobs, compared with 895,000 lost for women. Men made up 75.4% of the 3.6 million jobs lost that year.
Romney's claim also does not reflect that the job losses for women began in March 2008, almost a full year before Obama took office. At that point, women held a total of 67.3 million nonfarm payroll jobs, the highest level of female employment of the Bush administration.
Romney got a boost Thursday when two prominent anti-abortion groups -- the Susan B. Anthony List and National Right to Life -- endorsed his nomination, a sign that conservatives will coalesce around his candidacy despite concerns about his more moderate history as Massachusetts governor.
An influential Republican, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, said Thursday that Romney should aggressively focus on a policy-heavy message that questions Obama's handling of the economy.
That theme will be enough to keep the conservative base excited while also appealing to independent voters who will ultimately decide the election, Barbour said.
"This campaign is going to be waged in the center," Barbour said. "Don't ever forget that Barack Obama is the great uniter of Republicans. The party apparatus, the conservatives, the tea party, the organizations like small businesses and the NRA, they will be very active in providing volunteers and our base will be very active. That's critically important. But the election is going to be decided by a few million people, most of whom voted for Obama last time but have the same level of buyer's remorse as ticket purchasers on the Titanic."
Obama had no public events scheduled Thursday, but Biden used a New Hampshire campaign speech to attack Romney's economic policies, calling them a repeat of failed measures that caused economic collapse in 2008.
"Just look at what Gov. Romney wants to do," Biden said to a crowd of 400 supporters in Exeter, considered the birthplace of the Republican Party. "The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, the ones that were intended to expire, the ones that will expire this December -- he wants to extend them."
At one point, when a baby started crying during his critique of Romney's plan, Biden quickly quipped, "I don't blame the baby for crying," which was met with applause from the audience.
"That's one smart baby!" Biden exclaimed.
Romney's campaign, which spent substantial resources to win New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation GOP primary in January, held a conference call Thursday ahead of Biden's visit featuring prominent Romney supporters, including former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu.
"Welcome to New Hampshire Joe Biden," Sununu said on the call. "It's a shame you don't know how to talk about jobs that America needs and it's a shame you haven't been able to create the jobs that America needs."
The Obama campaign's focus on tax policy is part of a larger effort to push the so-called "Buffett Rule," which would mandate that Americans earning more than $1 million pay a tax rate of at least 30%.
Named for billionaire Warren Buffett, who complained about paying a lower tax rate than his secretary, the proposal coming up for a Senate vote next week is championed by the Obama administration as a first step toward bringing more fairness in the tax code.
On Wednesday, Obama called for Congress to approve the Buffett Rule, which is strongly opposed by Republicans.
Citing "significant" deficits and the need to be competitive in the 21st century's "technologically integrated economy," Obama said: "We can't afford to keep spending more money on tax cuts for wealthy Americans who don't need them and weren't even asking for them."
CNN's latest estimate of the GOP delegate tally shows Romney with 659, Santorum with 275, Newt Gingrich with 140 and Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 71. It takes 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination.
By suspending his campaign, Santorum can continue raising money and likely keep control of some or all of his delegates.
Both Gingrich and Paul say they intend to stay in the race to the GOP convention in August.
The next primaries are April 24 in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Delaware, with 231 delegates at stake.
The goal now for Gingrich and Paul is to prevent Romney from reaching the 1,144-delegate threshold before the convention.
CNN's Peter Hamby, Kevin Liptak, Laura Dolan, Jim Acosta, Jessica Yellin and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.