In a big shift, US parents tilt to Bush

Clinton scandals and concern about public morality count heavily in their choice.

Four years ago, President Clinton was famous for being far more popular among women than among men as he sought a second term.

And among women with children at home, Mr. Clinton thoroughly dominated Republican nominee Bob Dole: Mothers preferred Clinton 60 percent to 37 percent. Contrary to popular belief, soccer moms were never a swing group - they were always in Clinton's camp.

Today, in a striking reversal for Democrats, mothers are solidly backing the presumed Republican nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The gap is 11 points - 52 percent to 41 percent, according to independent pollster Andrew Kohut. Among fathers, Mr. Bush is ahead of Vice President Al Gore by an even larger margin - 54 percent to 36 percent.

This "parent gap" can be attributed in part to the Clinton scandals - and to the subsequent public sensitivity over what messages politicians send to the nation's youngsters. The question: Is this a temporary phenomenon or part of a broader shift toward Republicans at a time of growing concern about public morality?

At present, parents of children under age 17 make up 30 percent of the electorate, and thus represent a significant portion of the pool of likely voters. But while parents tilt to Bush, Mr. Gore has other advantages, and some polls show him beating the Texas governor for president. In Mr. Kohut's latest poll, with the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Gore had a 13-point advantage over Bush with women overall.

But "clearly Gore hasn't made the case with younger women, with mothers, that Clinton was able to make," said Kohut at a recent Monitor breakfast. "That case is empathy, that case is education, and other aspects of Clinton's great skill with this type of voter."

Though some of Clinton's ethical problems had nothing to do with Gore (i.e., Monica Lewinsky), others did, such as the fund-raising irregularities during the 1996 campaign.

Between now and the November vote, Gore will face repeated bashing over a 1996 fund-raiser he attended at a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles, fund-raising calls he made from the White House, and in the latest legal flap, missing e-mails that had been subpoenaed.

Parents in particular seem sensitive to the morality issue. Bush's age and the fact that he has teenage children may also make it easier for parents to relate to him than it was for them to identify with Mr. Dole four years ago.

At a time of unparalleled personal optimism, consumer confidence, and overall satisfaction with the state of the country, Gore should be doing better than he is. Currently, Kohut has him ahead of Bush by 6 points, but other polls have him down by 6 points.

"You have peace and prosperity, a very experienced and articulate vice president..., representing a party that gets higher marks on all those issues," says independent pollster John Zogby. "Why should this even be close? Simply by a reductive analysis, it comes down to the character of the president."

Indeed, when pollsters go issue by issue, Democrats beat Republicans in most cases, especially on social issues, such as education, healthcare, and gun control. Mothers will converge on Washington and other cities around the country on Mother's Day, May 14, for a Million Mom March, designed to highlight growing public alarm over guns.

Bush and the Republicans tread on difficult terrain when it comes to guns and mothers. Bush has accused the Clinton administration of failing to enforce gun laws already on the books, but Democrats counter with similar criticism of Bush's enforcement of gun laws in Texas.

Education is likely to be Bush's strongest social issue in luring more moms to his side - and keeping the ones he has in his camp. Ironically, he appears to be going against his party's orthodoxy to do that: Just a few years after the GOP's stated goal was to dismantle the federal Department of Education, Bush is proposing an enhanced federal role in education. Last week, he proposed a national reading initiative - costing $1 billion over five years - that would train teachers to detect reading problems in young children and then address them.

Gore is proposing even greater spending increases on education than is Bush. Gore's plan, which includes hiring 100,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes, would cost $115 billion over 10 years, while Bush's plan would cost $13.4 billion over five years. But the point is that both men see education, and more federal money devoted to an area that is in the United States a largely local issue, as keys to their election.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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