Women making their mark in many 1984 elections. Gender a non-issue in Nebraska's all-woman race

The Nebraska governor's race is a strong signal that women are making big inroads into American politics. Women across the United States are stumping as never before.

And here, for the first time in any state, two women face each other in the race for governor.

Perhaps the best news for women, though, is that Nebraska's historic contest between Republican Kay Orr and Democrat Helen Boosalis has ceased to be a novelty with voters.

``People are saying: `Oh, this is kind of a dull race,' '' says Susan Welch, a University of Nebraska political scientist.

``Either one of these women will make a good governor for our state,'' adds retired lobbyist Ed Miller of Omaha.

Political analysts expect further gains by women.

``You've got this whole new class of people who have never participated before,'' says Bob Miewald, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska.

``Maybe it's just that Nebraska is an election ahead of the country,'' he adds.

Nebraska is not too far ahead of the other states.

Besides Mrs. Boosalis and Mrs. Orr, seven other women are running for governorships. Sixty-one women are running for the US House of Representatives.

Six are vying for the Senate. For the second time in US history, two women are facing off in a Senate race: Maryland's US Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, and Republican Linda Chavez.

With gender not an issue in these all-woman races, more traditional themes have come to the fore. In Nebraska, the state's troubled economy occupies center stage.

``What this campaign is all about is the need to create new job opportunities for our people,'' Orr tells a balloon-festooned Republican gathering in Beatrice. And, ``We're going to have to cut that [state] budget down.''

The next morning in Omaha, Boosalis sounds the same themes.

``I don't just talk economic development, I do it,'' she tells a group of retired Kiwanis members. She also pledges not to raise taxes -- an especially sensitive point. Orr moved ahead in the polls after she criticized Boosalis for supporting a controversial sales-tax bill.

The two hopefuls emphasize some philosophical differences.

Orr wants less government, while Boosalis seeks an efficient, albeit more activist, one. They also disagree on some women's issues, such as abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, though such remain in the background of the race. Both women are struggling to fight the perception that they are similar candidates.

Why Nebraska became the first state to have an all-female governor's contest is unclear. The state's popular governor, Robert Kerrey (D), set the stage when he decided to step down.

``It was sort of a coincidence,'' says Professor Miewald. ``Both parties happened to have women who had a great deal of experience.''

Boosalis launched her political career in the Lincoln City Council in the late '50s. In 1975, she began an eight-year stint as mayor of Lincoln, the state capital, and then served as director of the state's Department of Aging.

Orr worked her way up through the state Republican Party, starting in the mid-'60s as a volunteer. By 1976 she was leading Reagan's campaign in Nebraska. After working as chief of staff under then-Gov. Charles Thone, she was elected state treasurer in 1982 -- the first woman elected to statewide office in Nebraska.

Despite their high visibility and the success of longtime US Rep. Virginia Smith (R), women have a way to go in Nebraska, says Professor Welch, who has researched women's politics.

But slowly, women are gaining local office. Here in Gage County, for example, four of 14 positions are held by women and more are expected.

``I don't think you'll see the men out keying for these jobs,'' says Margaret L. Higgins, a two-term county treasurer here who is running unopposed. The pay is low, she adds, but it builds a base for higher office.

Both gubernatorial candidates think their race will help that process.

``These are good gains and we're proud of 'em,'' Boosalis says. ``But it's just a start.''

Adds Orr: ``There is no question that this will motivate other women to seek higher office.''

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