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Bush making strides in bid to gain women's support

Updated:
Gore camp predicts tide will turn as campaign goes on

Republicans have a new bumper sticker for the presidential campaign: "W is for Women."

The "W" refers to George W. Bush and the slogan to the GOP effort to pry female voters away from their 1990s preference for the Democrats. Recent polls indicate it's working.

Surveys in the last three weeks suggest that Mr. Bush has erased the traditional Democratic advantage with women - an increasingly complex voting bloc that no longer is defined simply as the "soccer mom."

There are urban and suburban, married and single, black and white, working and nonworking women, retirees and 20-somethings, investors and noninvestors, gun control vs. gun rights activists. There's even the "Ally McBeal" and the "Erin Brockovich" vote.

"It's not monolithic," notes U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, a Fort Worth Republican.

Democrat Al Gore attracts such niche voters as the Allys (young urban professionals) and the Erins (environmental activists). Seniors and black women are usually huge Democratic blocs.

Mr. Bush is showing a powerful appeal to a large and influential segment - married moms. He has a slight edge in some polls among all mothers raising children, 70 percent of whom are now in the workforce.

Analysts say Mr. Bush has neutralized the Democrat among female voters by talking about issues they care about earlier and more forcefully than past Republicans - particularly education.

"Our nominee is not afraid to talk about issues that have traditionally benefited Democrats - education, health care and Social Security," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall.

And he uses words that are female-friendly, supporters say, when he talks about having an "open generous heart" and "leaving no child behind."

Democratic advantage
Democrats argue that female voters simply haven't tapped into the campaign yet, and that Mr. Gore will prevail when voters' attention turns to issues where Democrats usually have an advantage.

Spokeswoman Kathleen Begala responded from the Gore headquarters in Nashville:

"We're 5 1/2 months until this election, let us not lose sight of that. Folks here are talking about kids graduating, what to do with children for the summer, family vacations. They have other things on their minds."

Ellen Malcolm, head of EMILY's List, an organization that backs abortion-rights Democrats, said that "when people focus on the race again, I fully expect women will go back to Gore."

Scholars and partisans agree that although the women's vote is neither cohesive nor yet well-formed, at 52 or 53 percent of the electorate, it will be decisive.

"It will be hard for Gore to win if he does not win the women's vote," said Heidi Hartmann, head of the Institute for Women's Policy Research at George Washington University.

Gore forces are aware of that. Campaign manager Donna Brazile says the four pillars of the Democratic vote are senior citizens, labor, African-Americans and women.

Since 1980, every Democratic presidential candidate has fared better among women than men, who have moved increasingly into the Republican column.

"If we can break even with women, it's over," said Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

She recently hosted 1,000 GOP women opinion leaders from across the country at a Washington forum, where they crammed on "talking points" to woo women voters.

National polls

For the moment, Mr. Bush is doing measurably better than his predecessor Bob Dole, who got only 38 percent of women voters to Bill Clinton's 54 percent in 1996, and better than his father, who won 37 percent of women in 1992 to Mr. Clinton's 45 percent.

Recent national polls, including Voter.com's Battleground Poll, a Los Angeles Times survey and the latest New York Times matchup, show Mr. Bush with a big lead among men and even or slightly ahead among women.

But the experts warn against taking a snapshot of public opinion today and turning it into a November outcome.

"Gore himself has said that these polls are going to go up and go down. It doesn't matter at this 5 1/2-month mark," Ms. Begala said.

Dr. Anna Greenberg, who teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and does research on gender and politics for iVillage.com, said:

"Right now, Democratic voters are more ambivalent about Gore than Republican voters are about Bush. More Democratic voters are saying they are undecided. Women are more likely to vote Democratic, so they will move toward Gore."

In his gubernatorial races, Mr. Bush did well with female voters in Texas, splitting women's votes evenly in 1994 against an incumbent woman, Democrat Ann Richards. He won 65 percent of women's votes in his 1998 landslide.

Character and charm appear to be factors in his appeal to women today.

In 1996, many women felt that Mr. Dole was from another era and didn't understand their lives, which centered on juggling work and family or supporting families on their own. They viewed him and GOP congressional leaders as dour and intolerant, Ms. DiVall said.

Conversely, Mr. Bush is viewed as an "optimistic, inclusive candidate more in sync with today's voter," she said.

Others say he's family-centered and his honesty and integrity appeal to women who are whipsawed between family and marketplace concerns and weary of the Clinton role model.

"They're looking at a good man, not just a man who would be a good president," Ms. Granger said. "He holds his family closely, supports and protects his daughters. You will not see them on the campaign trail."

But Dr. Greenberg countered that the "family-man thing" doesn't set him apart from Mr. Gore. "People think Gore is a family man. They don't think he cheats on Tipper. They think they have a nice family and nice marriage."

And Mr. Gore shows up in polls as being perceived as a caring, down-to-earth person.

Key voters

Dr. Greenberg, nonetheless, sees married white women with children as the key swing voters.

"Married white women really are very, very concerned about values, parental authority, controlling their children's environment - not values narrowly defined. They can't control what's on TV, school violence, this larger environment.

"At the same time, they're balancing work and family. Because both parents are working - they need to work for health care - they're not home when the kids are out of school," she said.

Ms. Malcolm talks about "cross-pressured women," married and single mothers who "are agreeing with Democrats on the issues and choosing Republicans on the question of moral decline. The question is where they're going to come out."

Another group to watch is senior women, who compose 15 percent of the electorate and are concerned about Social Security and affordable prescription drugs, experts say.

Mr. Bush is taking a risk by proposing partial privatization of Social Security, but his supporters say such innovation is part of his appeal, and any loss of senior voters will be offset by the attraction of his plan to younger workers immersed in the stock market.

"For a while seniors were reliable Democratic voters. But that's become more fuzzy, partly related to the Clinton scandal. Older women are more conservative about these issues," Dr. Greenberg said.

"That will be an important piece of the electorate for the Democratic party. You have to win seniors."

Democrats, meanwhile, see the gun issue that drew thousands of women to Washington for a mother's march May 14 as a sleeper that could benefit Mr. Gore among women.
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