GOP Spoke of Soccer Moms, Democrats Spoke to Them

The menacing face of Richard Allen Davis, convicted killer of California schoolgirl Polly Klaas, stares chillingly from the TV screen.

Then, before our eyes, his image morphs into the face of Vic Fazio, a Democratic congressman from California.

The point of the ad, aired by Congressman Fazio's Republican challenger, was to paint the Democrat as soft on crime. But the effect was otherwise: a national cry of outrage - and sighs from Republican strategists, especially women, frustrated that their party was once again failing to speak appealingly to women voters.

"It was looked upon as capitalizing on someone else's tragedy; it was a cheap shot," says GOP pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, who cites anecdotal evidence that the ad turned off women in particular. Fazio was reelected.

For years now, marketing experts have understood the importance of tailoring messages to women. In traditionally male-dominated areas such as business, advertisers say women need to be treated equally with men. This summer, the power of women as consumers was demonstrated on television. NBC packed its Olympics coverage with female-friendly sports, such as gymnastics, and the human-interest stories of the athletes. Human-interest sagas were also prominent during the political conventions, as were female politicians.

But even if the Republicans concluded during their August convention that highlighting moderate GOP women - such as New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman - would draw in women voters, it may have been too late, at least for Republican nominee Bob Dole. The Democrats had for months hammered home the message that the GOP would cut health care for senior citizens and school lunches for children. Among women voters, President Clinton beat Mr. Dole 54 percent to 38 percent, with 7 percent going to Ross Perot.

And though the Republicans maintained control of Congress, they did so despite a gender gap that favored the Democrats.

"If the Republican Party were a business, and it sold product, this campaign would be a primary textbook example on how to alienate a whole market sector," says Gerald Celente, editor and publisher of The Trends Journal.

Both parties recognized early that women would be key to the 1996 race, particularly because women represent a greater proportion of the electorate (52 percent) than men. Last year, Mr. Clinton set up the White House's first office on women's issues, which brings to the president's attention areas he should highlight. His reelection campaign included a special outreach to women.

The GOP, for its part, has fought to improve its image among women. The office of party co-chair Evelyn McPhail conducted seminars for women around the country to get out the message that the GOP is women-friendly - that the party, contrary to Democratic charges, does believe that government can play a helpful and positive role in life.

Republicans say the problem is not with their policies but with their ability to communicate. But with Dole and Clinton as their parties' respective standard-bearers, the gap in ability to communicate to women was chasmic. Dole, for example, maintained throughout the campaign that the Family and Medical Leave Law, a new federal provision that allows workers to take time off to care for a new baby or a sick relative, is a bad idea. Polls show the law is very popular, and Dole should have just kept his thoughts to himself, Republicans say.

"Why he picked that issue is beyond me," says Rep. Connie Morella (R), a moderate from Maryland.

Experts on communication maintain that both the content of the GOP message and the way it was delivered were oriented toward men, intentionally or not.

"If you listened to Dole and [Jack] Kemp, they were treating government as the neighborhood bully," says Georgetown University Prof. Deborah Tannen, a noted author on gender communication. "From an early age, boys' worst fear is getting pushed around."

In contrast, girls' big fear is being left out or pushed away, she says. For many women, this translates into a feeling that government may abandon them in a time of need. Democratic charges that the GOP wanted to weaken the social safety net were particularly troubling to women.

But Dole might have helped his cause if he had deployed his wife - one of the GOP's leading women - to greater effect, says Bob Potesky of the New York advertising firm Young & Rubicam.

"Mrs. Dole could have been a more conservative version of Hillary [Rodham Clinton] and still been a thinking, intellectually active human being with positions on different policies," says Mr. Potesky. "You don't have to be liberal to be an outspoken woman."

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