HIGH above the rolling hills of southeast Missouri, flying to a campaign event, the candidate is talking gender.
Voters "are looking at us in a very interesting way," says Geri Rothman-Serot, a Democrat and one of 11 women running for the United States Senate. That's right. It's the "year of the woman," isn't it? Not really, she says; it is just the first stage of a movement to make Congress more representative of the population as a whole.
Days later, her opponent, Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond (R), is dashing to the airport after a St. Louis campaign stop. He is also asked: Is this the year of the woman? "There's been a lot of talk about it," he says, but its impact is uncertain. "It's a strange campaign."
That sums up the year of the woman - a definite trend that's hard to pin down. Here in Missouri, it is the subject of intense debate.
"It's certainly the year of the woman in Democratic primaries," says David Leuthold, emeritus political science professor of the University of Missouri at Columbia.
"I think it's the year of the progressive woman," says Susan Carlson, president of the Missouri Women's Political Caucus.
Some resist that characterization, however.
"The next time someone tells you its the year of the woman, tell them you are insulted they think you would vote for a candidate solely on her gender," Brenda Talent tells a crowded Republican fundraiser in suburban St. Louis. Ms. Talent isn't running for office. Her husband is - against a woman.
Still, it is impossible to dispute the fact that more women are seeking public office than ever before. Democrats and Republicans here nominated 53 percent more women for statewide and legislative offices than in 1988. In the Missouri state House, Ms. Carlson predicts 10 or 11 women could join the 25 female incumbents today. Four women could win election to the state Senate, up from two now.
That mirrors the national trend. The Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University reports 106 women were nominated this year for US Senate and House seats, compared with 70 in 1990. Most of the women running this year are Democrats. Nationwide and in Missouri, the balance is 2 to 1.
Republican women, however, are furious that 1992, when so many Democratic women are running, should be singled out as the year of the woman. In years past, women of both political parties made steady gains in state and national races, they point out. The 70 women already serving in the US House is a record. And while 11 women are major-party nominees for the US Senate in 1992, that is only one more than the previous peak in 1984.
What may be different this year is the public's mood. The year of the woman, analysts say, is part of a larger backlash against incumbents and politics as usual. Women are the beneficiaries of that, but so are ethnic minorities. Record numbers of blacks and Hispanics are running for the US House. In Illinois, Carol Moseley Braun could become the first black US Senator since 1979 - and the first black woman ever to hold that post.
"People are really angry, and they are frustrated," says Ms. Rothman-Serot, the Senate candidate. "I think that message gets lost in the year of the woman.... The reality is that men - and women - are very, very angry. The biggest change you can make is to put a woman in the Senate."
Rothman-Serot won the Democratic primary in dramatic fashion. Polls showed her with less than 10 percent support a few weeks before the balloting. But with a heavy television campaign, she came out on top in a race that, at one point, had 14 candidates.
Republicans fear she might pull off a similar last-minute, television-led charge in the general election. One recent Democratic poll put Senator Bond ahead by just eight percentage points. But a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll published last week showed him far ahead, 56 percent to 34 percent.
Bond is wary. "It's nice to be where we are, but my opponent hasn't begun her campaign yet," he says.
THE two candidates have waged a cat-and-mouse game over debates. Rothman-Serot wants one after Oct. 15. Bond is eager to get it out of the way before then. Bond campaign manager David Ayres says a debate would expose Rothman-Serot's "thinness on the issues."
Indeed, she offers few specifics about deficit reduction beyond cuts in defense, the space program, and her own Senate staff, if elected. But her real strength, she says, is bringing opposing sides to the table to break logjams. "That's exactly what women do. They pick away at the system. They pick away at the status quo," she says.
"Women are trusted," adds Judith Moriarty, the other Missouri woman running on the statewide Democratic ticket.
Ms. Moriarty certainly benefited from that perception in the primary for secretary of state. Running against three men, the virtually unknown county clerk from Sedalia, Mo., managed to win a plurality by spending only $16,000 - unheard of for a statewide race.
These trends make it more difficult for men to win, says Roger Wilson, a candidate for Missouri lieutenant governor. He is locked in a close race against a woman, Republican Margaret Kelly. But he is moving to change the tune. "This is the year of the Democratic man," he quips at the annual convention of the Missouri Federation of Women's Democratic Clubs. "And I'm one of them."