Can Molinari Help Bridge Republicans' Gender Gap?

KEYNOTE ADDRESS

If anyone can help Bob Dole appeal to female voters, it's Susan Molinari.

That's what many Republican strategists believe, anyway - and tonight they may find out if they're right, as the three-term congresswoman from New York's Staten Island delivers the crucial keynote address at the GOP convention in San Diego.

After all, Ms. Molinari presents an image that could counteract many of the things about the soon-to-be official Republican nominee that women tend not to like, things that have given President Clinton a 20-plus point lead among women in the polls. She's young, for one - close to half Mr. Dole's age. And she supports abortion rights, although she's said repeatedly that abortion won't be mentioned in her speech.

She's also a working mom. Her daughter is barely three months old, meaning she's unlikely to be awake during, or even aware of, her mother's introduction to the national political stage.

Not that Molinari is any kind of political neophyte.

Her father, Guy Molinari, represented New York's 13th Congressional District for a decade until his daughter succeeded him in 1990. Her husband, Rep. Bill Paxon (R) of New York, is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, a party organization that pushes for the election of GOP House members.

She's also spent much time in recent years campaigning for other Republicans, winning chits for a favor bank that may have helped win her tonight's coveted prime-time speaking slot.

THOUGH she's a New York City Republican (the only GOP representative from the Big Apple), Molinari's style is as far from that of a hard-driving Upper East Sider as her Staten Island district is removed from the bustle of Fifth Avenue.

She's upbeat, and almost spritely, or at least as spritely as a member of the Budget Committee can get. She says her speech will focus on children and "issues that unite Republicans" - a theme that many in the GOP have picked up in recent days following the divisive platform fights of last week over abortion and other issues close to conservatives' hearts.

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