Ferraro hones campaign skills on the hustings

In a high school gymnasium packed with a standing-room-only crowd chanting ''Gerry, Gerry,'' the vice-presidential candidate launched into her attack on President Reagan's record. A booming voice stopped her with shouts of ''What about the unborn?'' and ''Abortion!''

Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro held up her hands for silence. Looking straight at the disrupter, she promised, ''I'll meet with you afterwards. I really will.'' As the crowd booed the heckler, she defended him, telling her supporters, ''He obviously feels really strongly, and that's fine.''

The burly young protester quietly left the gym. No sooner had the event ended than Representative Ferraro clapped her hands and said, ''I've got to see my man.'' Candidate and heckler then retired to the high school principal's office for a brief, private meeting.

Such quick improvisation was one more sign that the little-known Democratic congresswoman from Queens is more than up to the exacting task of national campaigning.

Her audiences are clearly enthralled, even in heavily Republican Du Page County, where last week the 4,500 who came to see her at the Hinsdale High gym yelled and stomped their approval. High emotion is the rule at her rallies.

But there was even more electricity in the air after she debated Vice-President George Bush. Even if polls gave her opponent the edge after the debate, Ferraro won another type of victory. For the first time a woman candidate stood lectern to lectern with the United States vice-president and seriously discussed the major issues facing the nation.

The event was a rite of passage for her and perhaps for women in American politics. ''She held her own,'' says a friend and colleague, US Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly (D) of Connecticut.

That sentiment was echoed by voters, particularly women, along Ferraro's campaign route recently. Renee Brennan, a market manager for a direct-mail company visiting Chicago from her New York base, calls Ferraro's performance ''dynamic'' and Mr. Bush's ''condescending.'' A Reagan supporter in 1980, she says that she leans toward Democratic challenger Walter F. Mondale this year.

But most important in the eyes of the Ferraro campaign, and perhaps of history, is that she has offered evidence of her claim to be qualified for the country's highest office.

That she did not convince everyone was evident. ''I just don't care for her, '' says Mary Henson, a retired state worker from Waco, Texas, on a bus tour in Iowa. ''I just don't think she's qualified.''

A Bell telephone consultant working in Des Moines complained that the issue of the candidate's sex is a factor. ''We've had Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi,'' said Nita Satterlee. ''Here we talk about it as though it were something new, when it isn't.''

But there is no evading the fact that gender plays a role in the Ferraro campaign. As the candidate spoke in Hinsdale, eighth-grader Kristen Kolzow waved a poster-board covered with magazine clippings of Ferraro under the title ''Making History.''

''She's a woman,'' said classmate Amy Hagedorn. ''I love her.''

A story Ferraro rarely omits in speeches is of an 80-year-old woman who told her, ''I never thought I'd live to see the day.'' She now adds a postscript about meeting another woman, who motioned her aside during a campaign stop and told her that she had heard the story of the 80-year-old. Ferraro says the woman added, ''I'm 91, and I never thought that I'd live to see the day.''

But she also takes note when she sees unequal treatment, as when reporters ask, ''Could you push the nuclear button?'' She expected the question at the vice-presidential debate, and she got it. A few days later during on NBC-TV's ''Meet the Press,'' she was asked it again. ''I can do whatever is necessary in order to protect the security of this country,'' she responded in the TV interview, including pushing the button. But she later suggested that ''if I were not a woman,'' the question might not have arisen.

But the most constant barrage has come from the Reagan-Bush camp, which has let slip a variety of slights from the outset of Ferraro's nomination, when the President seemed to imply that her selection was an example of tokenism. Since then, Bush's press secretary and his wife, Barbara, have insulted her in talks with reporters. And the vice-president used a vulgar remark when boasting to union leaders in New Jersey that he defeated Ferraro in their debate - a remark he treats jokingly.

Ferraro has responded cautiously. She has moved from calling the remarks a ''putdown'' to pronouncing them ''planned,'' a charge Vice-President Bush flatly rejects. She has also told reporters of the Republicans, ''I think they're not quite sure still, after two months of the campaign, how to deal with me.''

Although the novelty of being the first woman to run has added a dimension to the campaign, Ferraro has an equal challenge as a neophyte on the national scene. A three-term congresswoman, a former prosecutor who worked her way through law school as a schoolteacher, she had no national campaign experience outside of speeches for President Carter four years ago.

Moreover, she walked into a hornet's nest over personal finances and has incurred the stern disapproval of her own Roman Catholic Church hierarchy over her strong pro-choice views on abortion.

She appears to have weathered charges that she failed to disclose her husband's finances on a congressional form, as well as a myriad of questions about the family's $4 million fortune and mistakes in tax payments. Those issues , which tarnished her image, seem to have been pushed into the background.

She has weathered less serious missteps, as well. ''Whenever she makes a mistake, she learns,'' says press aide Francis O'Brien.

Her biggest blunder, he says, was when she spoke about the stubbornness of ''Italian men,'' after her husband, John A. Zaccaro, initially refused to disclose his tax forms. Her husband later relented, and she saved her candidacy on Aug. 21 by fielding questions for nearly two hours on national television about their personal finances. The performance was the first sign in the campaign of her keen political instincts.

Among the lessons she has had to learn has been how to deal with the press. She found ''that everything that came out of her mouth was news,'' says campaign consultant Anne Wexler, a former Carter appointee. Ferraro learned the hard way. During the first week of the campaign in the Minneapolis airport, she was surrounded by the usual shoving, pushing entourage of reporters shouting questions. She turned to Ms. Wexler and said, ''These people are crazy.'' Unfortunately for Ferraro, a microphone caught the comment.

Now, spirits are high and relations smooth on the Ferraro press plane, although she still admits to problems with quip ''slippage.''

Ferraro also seems to have hit her stride on the campaign trail. ''When she started, she didn't like rallies,'' says Wexler.

Now they are her strong suit. Moreover, her speech delivery, which had been flat and so rushed that the words came out slurred, has improved, although the Queens flavor is still very much there.

At the same time, she has taken a crash course on issues that has taken her far beyond the perspective of a congresswoman who served on the House Budget Committee and chaired the party's platform committee. Foreign policy remains her weakness, although campaign adviser Madeleine Albright, a Georgetown University professor, argues that Ferraro was ''well grounded.'' She adds, ''You don't need years of practice to know we need arms control and we have to meet'' with the Soviets.

But the vice-presidential candidate has other problems: Polls showed her with high unfavorable ratings among voters, up to 43 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post survey made shortly before the Bush-Ferraro debate. Since then, Democratic polling shows a big jump upward in her favorable rating.

No poll, however, can accurately test the impact of the first-ever woman vice-presidential candidate. Joanne Howes, director of the Women's Vote Project, holds that some women will vote for her just because she is female, and that regardless of how they cast their ballots, women ''do think their vote will be more important'' because a woman is running.

''I think it's going to be hard to measure,'' says Ms. Howes, since voters may not reveal their true feelings in exit polls.

Next: Vice-President George Bush

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