Fine Art of Attracting the Women's Vote

By featuring actor Christopher Reeve and former presidential aide James Brady on center stage here this week, the Democratic Party made an appeal to the heart.

From Mr. Reeve, like Mr. Brady profoundly disabled under tragic circumstances, the message was one of compassion and community. From Sarah Brady, her husband at her side, the focus was gun control.

These were moments aimed directly at women.

In a campaign season marked by the biggest gender gap in history - which shows women favoring Democrats over Republicans in chasmic proportions - the art of attracting female voters is being elevated to new heights.

Two weeks ago, the Republicans at their convention showed they finally "got it," say analysts of gender politics. Showcasing Susan Molinari, a GOP congresswoman from New York and a young mother, on television during prime time as the keynote speaker put a new face on the Republican Party.

The Republicans, like the Democrats here, also put forward plenty of "real people" for audiences to relate to. Even if TV ratings for both conventions have been low, the message has been getting out in the echo chamber of news coverage.

For the GOP, the payoff was immediate. Bob Dole's post-convention bounce, which brought him to within a few points of the president in many polls, also narrowed his deficit with women - from 17 points down to six, according to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

Also, says Ms. Lake, "Dole brought home some suburban white women and Southern white women."

The bad news for Mr. Dole, though, is that the Democrats' confab has pulled the gender gap right back to where it was - 17 points, according to the latest Chicago Tribune/Hotline poll. Overall, in that poll President Clinton is ahead of Dole by eight points in a three-way race, with Dole enjoying a slight advantage among men.

Republicans say such polls merely reflect Mr. Clinton's own convention bounce. Indeed, Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the nonpartisan National Women's Political Caucus, expects the gender gap to narrow, now that the Republican leadership understands better how to reach women.

Before San Diego, says Ms. Ferguson, both the content and style of the message delivered by Dole and other Republican leaders turned women off. They served up "charts and graphs, lots of numbers," she says. "Not a personal message."

In style, the Republicans were "very confrontational," she continues, and "tended to shut off a good deal of communication from the women who were listening and responding to those polls where we've seen the large gap."

Lake, the Democratic pollster, notes the gender gap is not only candidate-based, it's also issue-based. Women tend to feel more economic insecurity than men do, worry more about children and violence, and believe in general that the government has a useful role to play, she says. (Interestingly, one issue with no gender gap is abortion. Men and woman favor and oppose abortion rights in equal proportions.)

The Democratic message that the Republicans were trying to destroy Medicare with deep cuts resonated more among women than among men, says Lake. Women in general feel they are more marginal in the economy and more vulnerable to economic downturns, and therefore are more concerned that a government safety net be maintained, she finds.

Republican pollster Linda Divall notes that women voters cut across a wide swath of demographic categories - such as age, education level, marital status, income, and region of the country - and can't be easily lumped together when candidates' messages are being crafted. Among single white women, for example, Dole trails Clinton 32 percent to 58 percent in a two-way race, says Ms. Divall. But among married white women, Dole trails by only one percentage point, 42 to 43.

Among women with college degrees, Dole trails Clinton by just four points, 41 to 45. But among women with post-graduate degrees, Dole trails 33 to 59.

Divall says that because so many factors contribute to voters' decisions, such variances defy easy explanation.

The GOP has long maintained that its problem with women was not in its policies but in the message. And the Republican National Committee (RNC) has held seminars for women around the country to get its message out. "We're fighting the stereotype that we're a party of men," says RNC spokeswoman Karen Johnson, who notes that the GOP has grappled with the gender gap for more than 20 years and yet has managed to hold the presidency most of that time.

Divall notes that women make up their minds late in elections, and so current polling data is soft.

Interviews with women voters (none of them convention delegates) relaxing at Chicago's touristy Navy Pier reveal an array of views - and in some cases a lack of focus on November. Maria Sandhya Matthews, a yoga instructor from suburban Schaumburg, Ill., is an Independent who hasn't thought much yet about the election, but does intend to vote. When told that Dole opposes abortion rights, Ms. Matthews declares she's pro-choice and that "the issue's a deciding factor for me." But she's uncomfortable with Clinton. "I really don't like his eating habits," she says. "If you don't eat properly, you can't think properly."

For Clinton to cash in on such votes - especially important here in Illinois, a swing state - he needs high voter turnout. Two years ago, when Republicans swept the Democrats out of the congressional majority, depressed turnout among Democratic women contributed to the rout.

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