The Furious Waltzing Of Women Voters

Why Bush and Gore are dancing as fast as they can

If George W. Bush is to win the Presidential election, it will largely be on the strength of voters like Mary Warden, 63, a former Tallahassee (Fla.) high-school teacher. She thinks Al Gore "is doing the typical politician thing--he's all things to all people. He can't possibly implement all of the things that he's proposing and keep this country out of debt." The upshot: Warden, though undecided, favors Bush.

If Gore is to prevail, however, it'll be thanks to folks like Warden's daughter, 35-year-old Mary C., a legal secretary in Manhattan. The younger Warden is strongly pro-choice but hasn't yet warmed to Gore. "Probably the biggest issue for me is reproductive rights," she says, "followed by who is going to do the best job for my retirement."

With Campaign 2000 looming as the most competitive Presidential contest in a quarter-century, both Democrats and Republicans have targeted the women's vote. Women have become increasingly Democratic in recent elections, but Republicans think they can be courted as they've moved into better paying jobs. And they're up for grabs: Nearly twice as many women as men remain undecided in the Presidential contest, according to an Oct. 4 Poll. With male voters lining up strongly behind Bush, Gore needs to compensate with an equally strong showing among women. Says Susan L. Hurley, president of a Chicago electrical contracting company: "The time for women to step forward is now if we expect to be a voting bloc to be reckoned with in the future."

AN OPENING? The battle for women's votes heated up on Sept. 28 when the Food & Drug Administration approved the use of the abortion pill RU-486. During the first Presidential debate, Gore turned a question about RU-486 into a riff on reproductive choice. Bush "trusts the government to order a woman to do what it thinks she ought to do," he charged. "I trust women to make the decisions that affect their lives, their destinies, and their bodies."

Gore strategists think the RU-486 controversy may create an opening to win female votes. Already, abortion activists are targeting pro-choice independents and Republicans. Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, predicts that abortion will end up "one of the motivating issues for swing women voting in swing states."

But one Democratic consultant calls the issue a double-edged sword for Gore that could hurt him among pro-life Catholics and rural women. "There's no real need to rub salt in people's eyes on this one," says Democratic pollster Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who argues that Gore can win these same voters over on issues such as family tax breaks, health care, and education.

One way or another, Gore has to find a way to maximize the "gender gap." The term was coined in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan boasted great strength among male voters but was far less popular among women. While the gulf has varied in the intervening years, it's at an all-time high in 2000. According to a Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Gallup tracking poll, women favor Gore by 51%-36%, while men back Bush by 52%-41%--a 26-point gender gap. (The record, Reagan's 1984 landslide over Walter F. Mondale, produced an 18-point difference). The pro-Democratic tilt among women, says Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.), "places a burden and responsibility on [Republican] candidates to focus on issues that make a material difference to women."

That's just what GOP strategists have been trying to do. Snowe and more than a dozen other female lawmakers have fanned out across the country to talk about issues of concern to women, from education to inheritance taxes. Republican National Committee Co-Chair Patricia Harrison says the party also is planning targeted ads and mailings. One goal: to convince women, who are repelled by the harsh partisanship of recent years, that Bush "will bring an end to this `I'll-rip-your-lungs-out' school of Washington," asserts Harrison.

The Texan has a lot of ground to make up. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, the battle of the sexes is most pronounced among non-Latino Catholics. Gore is ahead by 21% among these women but trails by 16% among men. Or consider Americans earning between $20,000 and $30,000 a year--a key target for both campaigns. The Democrat leads among women by 26% and trails by 7% with men.

Why the disparities? Political analysts point to surveys noting that women favor a more active role for government. And female voters are more likely to side with Democrats on hot-button issues such as gun control and abortion. But Gore's support among women is not monolithic. Bush leads among white married women, moms with school-age kids, and evangelical Christians. Gore, by contrast, holds a 2-1 edge among single women. "There's a big marriage/motherhood gap," says independent pollster John Zogby. "Bush is able to bridge the gap with his compassionate conservative rhetoric."

That's what Kathleen Driggers likes about Bush. "He brings hope to the future of politics," says Driggers, 30, a small-business owner and mother of two learning-disabled sons in Bremerton, Wash. "He seems like a real person."

EVERYWOMAN. From the start of his campaign, Bush has been talking about a prototypical American "everywoman"--the single mom working as a waitress, struggling to make ends meet. Antoinette Molinaro may be that woman. The 34-year-old single mom has been a Milwaukee waitress for 15 years. She earns less than $11,000 and has no health insurance. Firmly undecided before the first debate, she's now leaning toward Gore. "I liked what he said about [health] care," she said. "He really showed his experience in his answers."

That represents a huge challenge for Bush, since, issue by issue, he cannot hope to compete with Gore's rich menu of social programs. Still, it's essential that the Texan keep trying. Unless he can win over the Antoinette Molinaros of the country, the gender gap is likely to remain a chasm--and Democrats will stay in the White House.

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