The 104th Congress is barely 90 days old, but strategists for both parties are already looking ahead to the 1996 election and plotting how to win over a crucial constituency: women.
Thirteen years after the term ''gender gap'' entered the political lexicon -- and 75 years after women gained the right to vote -- the ''women's vote'' is as powerful a force as ever.
By a slight majority, more women vote than men. And the difference in opinion on key issues remains wide. In regard to the budget deficit, crime, jobs, and welfare reform, men express more confidence in Republican congressional leaders than do women by as many as 12 percentage points, the Times Mirror polling center reported in a February survey.
But women's overall preference for Democratic congressional candidates, the norm for at least 20 years, waned in last November's election. Among white women, support for Democrats dropped 4.4 percent from the average level of support from 1980 to 1992, according to Democratic consultant Celinda Lake. Not only was 1994 the year of the ''angry white male,'' it was also a year of ''ambivalent women,'' Ms. Lake states in a recent memo to women's leaders. ''Democrats would have retained control of both the House and Senate if women had been as excited about the Democrats as men were about the Republicans,'' she writes.
Her warning to the party is stark: ''Realistically, the Democrats will come back in 1996 only by putting together a message and strategy that excites the base of women and rebuilds support among men.''
A White House strategy is emerging: Highlight the differences between Clinton administration policies on issues affecting women and children with those of the Republican-led Congress. Last week three top women in the administration met with a dozen female journalists to discuss areas such as child nutrition, violence against women, and cuts in programs designed to help the poor.
For the Republicans, success with women voters in 1996 means doing more of what they did in 1994 -- attracting those looking for change and convincing even more women that the Republican brand of reform is compassionate, family-friendly, and realistic.
President Clinton may be one of their best assets, Republican strategists say. Though he was elected with the strong backing of women, that support has plummeted. Since his election, the Republican National Committee has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of women donors, with growth in all levels of giving, RNC spokeswoman Mary Crawford says. ''Our research showed that it was the character issue against Clinton'' that sparked the growth, Ms. Crawford adds.
Republicans are also excited about their prospects for electing more women to office. The more GOP women are elected, the more role models exist for women to identify with.
There are now 17 Republican women in the House, up from 12 in the last Congress, and three Republican women in the Senate, up from two. In addition, 28 GOP women won senior state-level positions, up from five in 1992. In state legislatures, Republican women won 87 seats while Democrats lost 104.
A poll commissioned by a group called RENEW (Republican Network to Elect Women), which funds and trains Republican women candidates, found that GOP women candidates have a 15-point edge over male Republican candidates with independent voters. Among non-Republican voters overall, Republican women score better than GOP men on trustworthiness, strength as leaders, and understanding of middle-class concerns, though among Republican voters, women candidates lag behind men.
RNC spokeswoman Crawford says the party's messages in fund-raising mailings have not specifically targeted women. But many Republican women in Congress say the range of their group's views speaks for itself: They are the ''big tent'' of the GOP.
''The one thing I've noticed is that the freshmen women and Republican women as a whole come from diverse backgrounds,'' says freshman Rep. Enid Greene Waldholtz (R) of Utah. She and five other of the seven freshman women are anti-abortion, while most of the incumbent Republican women in Congress favor abortion rights.
Affirmative action could be a political minefield in 1996 elections. In California, which spawned a move to eliminate preferences based on race and gender, some Democratic leaders are trying to recast it as a women's issue. In a recent column, political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe quotes California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown as saying: ''When the dust clears over the debate on affirmative action, [it will become clear] that white women are 80 to 90 percent the beneficiaries.''
But if programs benefiting women are threatened, will women rush to protect them? Ms. Jeffe, a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School, thinks not.
''This is not choice [the abortion issue], and this is not Hill-Thomas,'' says Jeffe, referring to the divisive Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas. Affirmative action is a ''much more complex issue. There's much more ambivalence.''
The White House, so far, has not played the affirmative-action card in its pitch to women, but, Jeffe says, strategists are looking at it.
On the gender-gap balance sheet, Republicans also gain with the end of the cold war. Traditionally, women favored Democrats on the ''peace'' issue, but that factor has now been mitigated. The bottom line, however, is that the gender gap will be very tough for Republicans to erase, Democratic analysts say.
But that may not be necessary, Republicans say. As November's vote showed, dampening women's enthusiasm for Democrats even somewhat can be enough to put Republicans over the top.