Orlando, Fla. — To many of the women who will be organizing neighborhoods, answering phones, and stuffing envelopes for Republican presidential candidates, the most exciting entry into the presidential race so far is candidate Robert Dole's wife. Elizabeth Dole announced her resignation as United States secretary of transportation last week to campaign full-time for her husband.
``She must really believe in her husband,'' says Kathryn Bertorello, a Republican activist from Palm Beach, Fla. ``When I heard her on television, that gave me the chills.''
Many of the 2,500 Republican women who gathered here this weekend will be delegates to the GOP convention in New Orleans next summer. Nearly everyone here will be working for a Republican presidential candidate.
The National Federation of Republican Women is the core of a volunteer campaign army. NFRW members alone reported 4.5 million volunteer hours in 1986 elections.
Although local organizing is diminished in the television age of politics, and more women are working full-time, women remain the foot soldiers of campaigns.
``At least in my district,'' says Republican activist Roberta Maloy of Brooklyn, N.Y. about political spadework, ``if women don't do it, it won't get done.''
Large segments of the group gathered this weekend are still undecided in the nomination race for 1988. Nearly all have a deep respect for George Bush. They commonly believe he would be an excellent, superbly qualified president.
But he sparks little excitement: ``Good old George. Who gets excited about that?'' asks Marianne Greene, a Republican activist from San Diego.
``I like him. I don't know anything bad about the guy,'' says Fay Askwith of Palm Beach, Fla.
``I want somebody to put a firecracker under him,'' says Thelma Williams of Memphis, Tenn.
A chant of ``We want Jeanne'' that followed a speech here Saturday by former United Nations Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick (who is not a candidate) caught more hold in the audience than did ``Bush '88'' earlier in the day - even though Bush partisans had the support of a brass band.
None of the Republican hopefuls - all six major candidates appeared here - arouses much excitement throughout this crowd. ``Certain groups get excited about [US Rep. Jack] Kemp and [Christian broadcaster Pat] Robertson,'' notes Marianne Greene, ``but not across the board.''
Republican women here, whether tradition-minded or with careers and political ambitions of their own, believe that a candidate's spouse is an important issue.
``You have to have a sounding board,'' says Mrs. Bertorello. When he is relaxed and away from his staff, she asks, ``who will the [next] president be talking to?''
Barbara Bush, the Vice-President's wife, is a popular personality with many of the women here. But Mrs. Dole is widely admired and, some say, better known than her candidate husband.
``Whatever my feelings about Mr. Dole,'' says Roberta Malory, an attorney and New York GOP committeewoman, ``I like to feel that his wife supports him.''
Zena Mehler, legislative director for the Florida Federation of Republican Women, admires Mrs. Dole for putting her marriage ahead of her own career. So does Marcie Riedinger, an activist from Seattle, who sees Mrs. Dole as ``a very sharp woman who wants to do what she can for a very sharp husband.''
Fay Askwith, who owns a company that tests electrical systems in nuclear plants, also admires Mrs. Dole - yet sees her differently. Dole is not putting her husband's career ahead of her own, she says, but ``taking a risk to get another job, the job of first lady.''
``I can't see a businesswoman of her stature giving up her career,'' she adds, unless it's for a bigger challenge.
Overall, women remain somewhat less Republican and less conservative on most issues than men, notes Sue Carroll, a senior research associate at the Center for the American Woman and Politics. The only exception is on personal morality issues like drug abuse, alcohol, and pornography. Here women tend to be less permissive than men.
In the 1984 presidential election, 57 percent of women voters voted Republican, according to the Republican National Committee - compared to 60 percent for the total electorate.
Yet Betty Heitman, former president of NFRW, claims that the Democrats have nothing to compare to the core of grass-roots volunteers provided by the GOP organization.