Jennifer Wallace Garner, a 32-year-old graphic designer and social liberal, didn't hesitate before voting for Al Gore in 2000. But the shock of the September 11 attacks and the birth of her first child earlier this year have led her to rethink her political priorities. "I think about a terrorist attack every day," says Garner, who works in Washington and lives in the Northern Virginia suburbs. "I'm not just thinking about myself anymore. I have my daughter, and I want her to grow up in a safe country." The result for Garner is something that was almost unthinkable three years ago: Unless the Democratic nominee makes a strong argument for a muscular national security policy, she might just vote to reelect President Bush.
Garner is far from the only mom whose political attitude has been altered by the war on terrorism. Married women with children -- many of them the so-called Soccer Moms who twice backed Bill Clinton -- have been drifting toward the GOP in the aftermath of the horrific September 11 attacks. That has led some pollsters to dub these largely suburban, socially progressive voters "Security Moms."
While remaining sympathetic to the Democratic domestic agenda, they are vitally interested in the safety of their families. With the electorate increasingly polarized -- and with most women unhappy with the President's performance -- this group of white, married moms is a key to George W. Bush's fortunes: 64% favor his reelection -- almost the same as 66% of married men, according to a bipartisan Battleground Poll conducted Sept. 7-10.
In contrast, women overall are still more likely than men to lean Democratic: In a Gallup Poll conducted Nov. 14-16, 44% of women approve of Bush's job performance, compared with 56% of men. That's roughly similar to the situation in the 2000 Presidential election when women favored Gore over Bush, 54% to 43%. While the President probably will not win an outright majority of female votes, chipping away at the gender gap by wooing Security Moms could be an important component of a winning coalition. "White, married moms are going to be the biggest swing group next year," predicts Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
There's no doubt that September 11 provided an opportunity for Bush with independent-leaning women. Polls after the attacks showed women feeling much more vulnerable to the threat of terrorism than their husbands. In 2002, women essentially split their votes between Democratic and Republican House candidates, according to Voter News Service data, and they may have helped tip the Senate to the GOP. And this October, a survey by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that more than half of women questioned agreed that "the best way to ensure peace is through military strength." This year was the first time in the 12 years Pew has been asking this question that women and men saw eye to eye on the issue. In previous surveys, men always had been more hawkish.
Republican pollster Linda DiVall points to these trends as a potential windfall for Bush. "There is no doubt that married women with younger children now see the President in a different light than they did during the  campaign," she says. "They are comfortable with him. They like moral leadership and his determination to fight terrorism." Sonia Achtyes, a mother of three from Jennison, Mich., disapproves of GOP tax policies, which she thinks have driven up the budget deficit. But this political independent appreciates Bush's forceful response to the terrorist attacks. "I like the fact that he seems sure with the path he's taking," she says. "I trust him."
Democrats are eager to win back swing voters like Achtyes, and they think they see an opening. Many Security Moms worry that the Administration's inadequate planning for postwar Iraq has resulted in the needless loss of American lives while increasing the global threat of terrorism, according to Ann Lewis, director of the Democratic National Committee's Women's Vote Center. "They are skeptical of an overseas commitment," Lewis says. "Particularly when it comes at the price of not doing more on the homefront." That's reflected in a gender divide over the direction of the U.S. foreign policy: The Pew Center's October poll, for example, found 54% of female respondents agreeing with the President's decision to use military force in Iraq, compared with 66% of men.
As memories of the al Qaeda attacks recede and social concerns reemerge, Democrats think they can make inroads into the married-mom vote. "The health-care issue really can't be underestimated," says Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. "Women tend to be the ones to handle paying the health-care bills, and they go to the doctor more often. They notice when co-pays go up." The issue of health care certainly resonates with Jamie Coleman, a 45-year-old nurse in Lebanon, Pa., with an 11-year-old son. "I think security is a top priority, and the President has done a good job on it," says Coleman, a registered Republican who voted for Bush in 2000. "But since then, I'm looking at the millions of people who are uninsured, and I'm not sure if the President is hearing those people. I wonder if his priorities have changed."
FRONT AND CENTER
To keep women like Coleman from defecting to the Democrats, the Bush campaign won't just be pushing the President's national security bona fides. It will also be sure to place Bush's family-friendly domestic accomplishments front and center -- particularly his efforts on education and his tax reforms, such as the child credit and elimination of the marriage penalty. Emphasizing "compassionate conservatism," the hallmark of the President's 2000 campaign, could have an effect, Democratic pollster Lake acknowledges. "It says: 'I'm strong, but I care,"' she says. "It's completely geared toward women."
Bush doesn't have to entirely erase the gender gap to improve his reelection chances, however. He just needs an incremental increase in female supporters. Bush and political strategist Karl Rove know that small demographic shifts -- among Latinos, Catholics, Jews, union members, and women -- could pay big dividends in hotly contested swing states. For Bush, dusting off his "compassionate conservative" message will help with female voters but more important will be buffing his image as the forceful Commander-in-Chief who's keeping terrorists at bay.
By Alexandra Starr in Washington