'84 Democratic hopefuls pay 'historic' attention to women's vote

Feminists just in from the weekend's convention of the National Women's Political Caucus appear convinced that the women's vote will be sought more attentively, and mean more than ever, in 1984.

Punctuating the anti-Reagan mood among the 800 delegates to the San Antonio convention, a New York Times/CBS poll released over the weekend showed the gap between the number of men and women supporting the President - the so-called ''gender gap'' - had widened to 18 points.

''We weren't just talking to ourselves this time,'' says Kathy Wilson, chairman of the National Women's Political Caucus. Indeed, the convention of the 73,000-member organization grabbed headlines as the five leading Democratic presidential hopefuls attended the convention.

Further, Ms. Wilson, a Republican with close ties to the party, got some press of her own when she addressed President Reagan by way of the convention platform, asking him not to run for reelection. The consensus among caucus members, a third of whom are Republicans, was solidly enough against Reagan that the organization may decide for the first time to endorse a presidential candidate, without threatening a division within the bipartisan ranks, she says.

Organizers say it is ''historic'' that so many Democratic presidential hopefuls found the feminist gathering important enough to attend.

Betty Heitman, co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, disagrees, suggesting it would be routine for any presidential candidate to attend. She does acknowledge, however, that the Democrats, as well as the Reagan administration, have been courting the women's vote as a result of evidence of a ''gender gap.''

''I think we have a gender gap'' primarily because of the administration's failure to communicate the President's good record on women's issues and appointments, Ms. Heitman says. But she adds that ''you can't lump women into one mass and say they're going to vote the same on any issue . . . they think for themselves. Everyone tends to vote pocketbook issues, though.'' And, she says, the President's handling of the economy has been good for everyone.

But the Democrats are welcoming the notion of a women's vote, and will play directly to the liberal heart of women's interests, which center on issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights.

''The Democrats will have a women's plank in every campaign plan (state and federal),'' says Ann Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee and a founding member of the caucus. ''The women's vote has been a debatable issue, but now it's recognized and can become negotiable'' politically , she says.

Because of the gender gap, political candidates will give women as a voting bloc more attention as elections approach, says Ethel Klein, who teaches government at Harvard and is writing a book on the gender gap. She says political observers can expect to see stepped-up voter registration among women, more women hired on campaign staffs, and issues that will be given a women's slant.

''The next step is to see what they (candidates) say about women in front of the AFL-CIO or before the Democratic National Committee,'' agrees Dotty Lynch, a consultant with Sen. Gary Hart's presidential campaign.

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