WOMEN play starring roles here at the Republican National Convention, and George Bush hopes the voters will notice. Elizabeth Dole, wielding a man-size gavel, chairs the convention. Jeane Kirkpatrick gives a major address. Nancy Reagan is honored. Helen Hayes leads a salute to senior citizens. Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr reports on the convention's resolutions committee.
Fully 40 percent of the time at the podium will be occupied by women, and convention manager Fred Malek says: ``I wish I could say it's 50 percent.'' At least one major speech every night will be delivered by a woman.
The reason: Republicans are in trouble with America's women. Female voters support Democrat Michael Dukakis by an overwhelming margin in recent surveys, and could hold the balance of power in November. (What the polls show, Page 3.)
Richard Wirthlin, the White House pollster, says he is almost resigned to an ``institutionalized gender gap'' - one that at present gives Democrats at least a 10-point advantage among women voters. At the same time, Republicans are more popular with men.
The dichotomy shows up in a KRC Communications/Research Inc. poll released this week. It finds Governor Dukakis leading Vice-President Bush 45 to 44 overall. But women prefer Mr. Dukakis 50 to 37, while men back Mr. Bush 51 to 40.
Mr. Wirthlin says Dukakis's advantage with women apparently has little to do with Bush. It reflects women's perceptions of the parties.
Political scientist Ethel Klein of Columbia University agrees that much of the GOP's problem with women is generic - perhaps 60 percent. But she suggests that about 40 percent of the problem relates to Bush himself - especially when he is contrasted to Dukakis.
The perception among women is that ``Dukakis would know the price of milk, and know what women's problems are about,'' says Professor Klein, who has conducted a study of the gender gap for the Business and Professional Women's Foundation.
Especially among working women with families, there's a feeling that ``Bush doesn't know what it's like to live from paycheck to paycheck and make ends meet,'' Klein says.
At the same time, she says: ``The Democratic Party would proceed at its peril to take the women's vote for granted.''
The burning question for Republicans gathered here in New Orleans is: What is behind the discomfiture of women, and what can be done about it?
Experts tell us that the alienation between the GOP and women has grown out of changing times. Women are suffering from widespread divorce and poverty. More and more families are headed by unmarried women. The number of unwed mothers has reached record levels. Financial need is forcing millions of women with young children to work outside the home.
Republican consultant Linda DiVall says the party needs to ``explain and understand what women's struggles are.''
Working women under 40 with children at home are fleeing from the Republicans, according to John Marttila, a Democratic consultant.
Many Republicans admit they were slow to adapt to this new social and political environment. Bush's recent day-care proposal was an attempt to play catch-up with the Democrats.
Their changed family, social, and economic circumstances make many women feel vulnerable and alone. They feel despair, and worry that their lives will get worse.
Klein says it is unmarried women with no partner, subsisting on a low wage, having trouble feeding and housing their children, who are most likely to turn to the Democrats. They want help, and they expect the government to provide it.
Pollsters find that overall, women are much more likely to favor larger, more active government than men are. They want Washington to stress a strong social agenda that focuses on homelessness, family, and full employment. They want new priorities for the next four years, with more emphasis on the domestic needs, less on defense.
All this adds up to change. Bush's challenge will be to talk about the need for change without appearing to criticize the Reagan years, of which he was a part.
The battle for the loyalty of women has both short-term and long-term ramifications for American politics.
Professor Klein says Republican weakness with women during the past eight years was largely responsible for frustrating the party's drive to attain majority status in the United States. Although party strength surged, and reached near-parity with Democrats in 1984-85, it never reached the pinnacle President Reagan sought, because American women balked at the party's message.
The women's vote was also instrumental in the Republican loss of the Senate in 1986.
The problem can't be solved with a single bold stroke by Bush, such as selecting a woman vice-president, Klein says. Wooing America's women will require a long-term commitment to solving their problems.