White House race takes a feminine feel

From 'Oprah' to 'Regis,' candidates court women, who may make up 61 percent of undecided voters.

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From "waitress moms" to "blue-collar dads" to "the kiss," this year's presidential race is bursting with all things gender-related.

Call it the "Year of Mars and Venus."

It was back in 1980 when the difference between men's and women's voting patterns - the gender gap - first emerged. And ever since, the female influence on American elections has been snowballing. More than ever, it's seen in the way pollsters poll, journalists report, and candidates campaign. Suddenly, male and female perspectives on politics are at virtual parity.

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This year, one statistic stands out: 61 percent of all undecided voters are women, according to the latest poll by Peter Hart Research. That means candidates are pitching hard to female voters.

Consider these signs of the times: Both major-party men appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Republican nominee George W. Bush did "Live with Regis." Laura Bush rejoined her husband on the trail last week. And Tipper Gore typically campaigns with her husband, Vice President Al Gore, three days a week.

In fact, two so-called women's issues - education and healthcare - dominate this year's discourse. And when traditionally male issues, such as the economy and oil prices, come to the fore, the emphasis is on how they affect voters' "pocketbooks" (not "wallets").

Gender "has become one of the dominant lenses through which journalists and pollsters and candidates view elections," says Anna Greenberg, a political scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

But it hasn't always been this way. Women first got the vote in 1920. By 1964, greater numbers of women than men voted, though there weren't big differences in who they chose.

Then, the "gender gap" of 1980 gave way to women singlehandedly reelecting President Clinton in 1996. That year, women backed Mr. Clinton over Republican Bob Dole, 54 percent to 38 percent. Men backed Mr. Dole over Clinton, 44 percent to 43 percent. More women voted, so Clinton won.

All this begs the question of how women and men go about deciding how to vote.

Both sexes, for instance, say the economy is key. "But when you ask a follow-up question, men say they care about higher taxes, while women are concerned about job benefits and the social-safety net," says Dianne Bystrom, head of the Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames.

On crime, there's a big difference, too: Women care about personal safety, while men are concerned about the right to bear arms and the death penalty.

Overall, observers say, women typically want a bigger role for government.

"Whether they're Republicans or Democrats, women tend to want a little more of that support system," says Debbie Walsh, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

"They're not tax-and-spend maniacs," she says, but there is a clear difference between the sexes. And it comes from women typically feeling more economically insecure - and thinking government should help. This, she says, bodes well for Gore and the Democrats - who tend to see government as a primary problem-solver.

Then there's the issue of character.

Women have a "smell test" for it, says Linda Hirshman, author of "Hard Bargains: The Politics of Sex." In fact, for many, choosing a candidate and choosing a husband are similar decisions. That's because, "the only other experience we have in which men compete for our favor is courtship."

So, they ask "very female" questions such as, "Does he mean the things he says? Will he care about our kids? Does he look like he'll get mad?" In the political arena that translates into, "Does he yell on TV? Does he run negative ads?"

"We're sniffing," she says, "trolling around for little hints about the underlying character that tell us how he's going to act in a future situation."

That's why the "Oprah" and "Live" appearances are so important: They're not about issues, they're about personality. It's why Bush's "compassionate conservative" pitch played so well early on - but why episodes such his referring to a reporter with an expletive come off so badly.

This - and Gore's emergence as a guy who would kiss his wife on prime time - may explain part of the dramatic shift in women's support away from Bush, toward Gore.

Yet one of the emerging lessons of 2000 is also that women are hardly monolithic in their voting. One big factor in how they'll vote is whether they're married. The Hart poll, for instance, finds single women backing Gore over Bush, 62 percent to 21 percent. Among married women, Gore barely edges Bush, 44 percent to 42 percent.

As a whole, however, the undecided women may be "like those women in college who couldn't make up their minds about which guy to go out with on Friday night - and kept all of them waiting 'til the last minute," says Ms. Hirshman. "It's going to make the election very volatile and very close."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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