In party switch, women prefer Bush over Gore

Women like Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

So do men, for that matter. But it's the early polling numbers on women's presidential preferences that have some Democrats concerned and Republicans calculating how to hang onto women voters all the way to the November 2000 election.

For the Democrats' presidential hopes, the math is stark: Bill Clinton won the presidency on the strength of the women's vote, and for Vice President Al Gore to succeed him, Democrats say he'll have to do the same. The Democrats have been losing male voters, making women all the more important, analysts say.

But in the latest poll of possible presidential matchups, a survey of New Hampshire voters by the firm Research 2000, women backed Governor Bush over Mr. Gore 51 percent to 41 percent. A recent nationwide Gallup poll shows Bush beating Gore among women by 12 points. Another leading Republican contender, Elizabeth Dole, also beats Gore by 12 points among women.

"A lot of it has more to do with who Bush and who Dole are," says independent pollster Del Ali of Research 2000. "These are the new rising stars - a different type of Republicans who don't talk like the rank-and-file Republicans."

But analysts note that the public doesn't know any of the candidates well, including Gore, and they caution against overinterpreting the polls. Still, Democrats "should be worried," says Mr. Ali.

For Republicans, these early polls represent an opportunity to make inroads with female voters, a constituency that has long confounded them. What the GOP needs to do is develop strong moderate messages on the issues women care most about, such as education, health, and the environment, analysts say. Passing gun-control legislation, favored by a majority of women, is a start.

After candidates begin to formulate agendas and define their positions on issues, then any breakdowns along gender lines will become truly apparent.

"The one thing we know for sure about the gender gap is it seems to be issue-based," says analyst Susan Carroll at the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "So far there hasn't been much talk about issues. Support for candidates is very soft, and everyone knows that."

Another sign of hope for Democrats is that in polls gauging voter preference for generic congressional candidates, a plurality of women still favors Democrats.

But on the presidential level, some Republican activists see deeper shifts at work in women's attitudes. Tanya Melich, author of "The Republican War Against Women," says women are turning away from Gore because they're tired of the Clinton-Gore administration's years of scandals.

"There's this exhaustion and anger among women," says Ms. Melich, a Republican activist. "Many people are fed up with Clinton. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with Gore, but [he and Clinton] had their chance. And Gore stood by the president."

Mrs. Dole, whose candidacy is still in the "exploratory" phase, adds a new dimension to discussion of the women's vote. As former president of the American Red Cross and a former Cabinet secretary, she is the highest-profile woman ever to consider running for a major party's presidential nomination.

In New Hampshire, women are drawn to her candidacy more than men are: The Research 2000 poll, released May 21, showed 20 percent of the state's likely GOP women voters would back Dole, versus 10 percent of GOP men. Among all Republican candidates, she ranks second only to Bush.

But Melich believes there's more to Dole's appeal than her gender: Dole, alone among Republican contenders, has spoken out forcefully in favor of gun control. And she, along with Bush, has also sought to strike a more moderate stance on abortion.

"Elizabeth Dole is smart to have done what she's done on gun control and abortion," says nonpartisan pollster John Zogby. "She picks up a lot of support among independents. There are a lot of pro-gun-control and pro-choice Republicans."

Even if Dole ultimately doesn't win the GOP nomination, her appearance on the political stage could still help to moderate the party's image and bring more women into the fold.

For Democrats, the danger with women voters is double-edged: If substantial numbers of women peel off to the GOP, Republicans will sweep into the White House and build on their majority in Congress.

But there's also the danger that women will just stay home, as they did in 1994 when the GOP took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Two years later, women voters reappeared, angered by a Republican message they felt was too harsh. Democrats regained some seats in Congress, and Mr. Clinton was easily reelected. His 11-point gender gap was the largest ever for a presidential election.

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