WOMEN may hold the key to who sits in the White House in 1997.
The ''gender gap'' - women's long-documented tendency to vote more for Democrats than Republicans - is at record levels. One recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed President Clinton beating GOP candidate Bob Dole among women by a whopping 55 to 37 percent. Another recent survey, by Yankelovich Partners, registered a 15-point gap between Clinton and Dole among women.
''You've got to be a little careful, the election is so far away,'' says Hal Quinley, a partner at Yankelovich. But he agrees the gender gap ''seems as big as ever.''
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake sees the gap widening in three ways: ''It's candidate-based, it's issue-based, and it's partisan-based.'' Because women represent 51 percent of the electorate, and tend to turn out to vote in slightly higher numbers, the gap looms even larger for the GOP.
What can the GOP do? Republican activists caution against overreacting, noting that the ''other gender gap'' - men's preference for GOP candidates - mitigates somewhat the female preference for Democrats. Republicans also note that the gender gap demonstrated in polls doesn't always play out in actual votes. In 1984, President Reagan won a majority of women's votes in his successful reelection bid after much was made of Democratic challenger Walter Mondale's advantage among women (and his decision to select a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate.)
Still, the Republican Party is fighting to improve its image among women. ''Our job is not to change our message, but to make sure women are getting the right message about us,'' says Evelyn McPhail, co-chair of the Republican National Committee. ''The Democrats have scared women into thinking that Republicans don't want to help them. That's simply not true.''
The GOP is organizing seminars for women in one effort to get the message out. The party is also heavily recruiting women to run for office at all levels of government. McPhail expects a record year for women candidates, building on 1994's boost in women elected to office. In the last election, for example, 28 GOP women won senior state-level positions, up from five in 1992. These women, and other successful Republican women politicians, will be important role models and spokeswomen for the party this year.
Clinton is not taking his gender gap for granted. Last year, he organized the White House's first office on women's issues, which brings to his attention subjects and people that he should pay attention to and highlight in public forums. Yesterday, Stephanie Foster, a former aide to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, joined the Clinton reelection team to head up women's outreach.
Democratic pollster Lake, who currently sees an eight-point gap between men and women in party affiliation, says women's tendency to prefer Democrats goes beyond the Clinton candidacy. It's linked more to issues. ''Women think the Republican cuts are going too far. College-educated men say the cuts aren't far enough,'' she says.
Women are more worried about the economy, because they feel more marginal than men, Lake adds. They also worry about safety-net issues, such as Medicare and Social Security; men worry more about the deficit, says Lake.
One explanation for the widening gender gap, says Mr. Quinley at Yankelovich, is that ''the parties are more polarized. Look at what the Republicans are trying to do. They're pushing well beyond what they were trying to do before.''
Republicans caution against overstating the importance of women's voting patterns vs. men's. ''You have to look at many, many factors when analyzing how people vote: income level, race, education, family status, region of the country, religious affiliation,'' says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican pollster.
In 1994, Republicans even found some cheer in gender statistics. For example, 55 percent of white women voted GOP, the first time a majority of white women had done so since analysts began looking at the gender gap. And Republicans registered a 1 percent increase in the percentage of women who voted for them - 46 percent vs. 45 percent in 1992.
Turnout is a key element. In 1994, says Ms. Fitzpatrick, blue-collar women - a traditional Democratic bloc - stayed home. That helped the GOP. But 1994 wasn't a presidential election year. So this year, Democrats are looking more to 1992 - the so-called ''year of the woman'' - as their model rather than 1994, the year of the ''angry white male.''
Some veteran activists say that, ultimately, the gender gap is just a fact of life the GOP has to work around. ''It's something we live with, it's not a killer influence,'' says Wilma Goldstein, a Virginia-based GOP activist. ''I've not seen an election where we've been knocked over because of the women's vote.''