Playing both sides of gender gap

Candidates struggle with the increasingly difficult task of appealing to women without alienating men.

In the final days before the New Hampshire primary, Bill Bradley knew he had a woman problem.

That is, he trailed Vice President Al Gore among female voters - the large majority of Democratic voters there - in the battle for his party's presidential nomination. So he scheduled an appearance at a YWCA to talk women's issues, and drew an overflow crowd. Then after an hour, he brought out Tommy Heinsohn, former coach of the Boston Celtics - "for the husbands," quipped one observer.

Thus, in one event, was encapsulated a central issue for all the top presidential candidates: how to appeal to women, the majority of voters, while keeping men on board as well.

In the primaries, each major-party race has a clear gender dynamic at play. Between the top two Republicans, Texas Gov. George W. Bush plays better among women than does Arizona Sen. John McCain. Between the Democrats, women prefer Mr. Gore to Mr. Bradley. And when it comes to the final showdown in November, Republicans may face the biggest gender challenge of all: getting women to vote for their candidate. In the New Hampshire primaries, the Republican electorate was dominated by men, 58 percent to 42 percent, while the Democrats were dominated overwhelmingly by women, 61 percent to 39 percent.

The gender gap, which has steadily widened in the past two decades, may be getting even bigger, notes independent pollster Andrew Kohut.

The more "masculine" candidates - Senator McCain and Bradley - appear to face a tougher challenge, especially if either wins his party's nomination. After all, the women's vote handed President Clinton his margin of victory in the 1996 campaign. But the key, of course, is to appeal to both sexes, analysts say.

This time around, in the months leading up to the New Hampshire primary, "no one was talking to men first off," says Dick Bennett, a nonpartisan pollster based in Manchester, N.H. "No one was talking to older women, either. Then McCain and Bradley started talking to older men. If they hadn't had them, I don't think they would have had the support to spring into anything greater."

McCain's obvious appeal to men comes from his background as a Navy fighter pilot and Vietnam POW. Bradley's comes from his years as an NBA basketball star. But where are Mr. Bush and Gore falling down among their own gender? With both, it has to do with the appearance that each somehow isn't his own man.

"Gore is a man who will do what women tell him to do," says Mr. Bennett, noting the flap over the stories about Gore getting advice from feminist Naomi Wolf. Gore's wife, Tipper, and eldest daughter, Karenna, are also prominent influences.

Bush, say analysts, suffers from appearing to be too "handled," having too many advisers telling him what to do. Perhaps the worst moment in his campaign thus far came when his parents appeared with him on stage, and they told New Hampshirites to vote for their "boy."

But with women, Bush does well with his message of "compassionate conservatism." Many of Bush's ads feature the candidate with children, in a clear bid for the soccer-mom vote. Some analysts say that in being so children-oriented, he's missing another crucial element of the female vote.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake disagrees. "Older women love ads with children," she says, noting that support for education is surging among seniors. A lot of senior women are in charge of their grandchildren these days. And senior citizens understand that today's children are the surgeons and nursing-home workers of tomorrow. In addition, with the strong economy, many older Americans aren't feeling as pinched financially, and so are more willing to see a greater public investment in education.

For Gore, his association with Mr. Clinton remains a net plus among women. "They thought [Clinton] was doing a good job on things they cared about, that he's more than a philandering husband," says Ms. Lake. Clinton and Gore are "perceived to be a team that has kept their eye on the things that mattered," such as Social Security and Medicare.

On the Republican side, one noteworthy fact appears to contradict the notion that McCain may have a problem appealing to women voters. In his late surge in New Hampshire, which handed him a stunning 19 percent victory in the Feb. 1 primary, the big boost at the end appeared to come from women voters, according to a Gallup poll.

That's because women tend to decide whom they're going to vote for later in the process, says Bill McInturff, McCain's pollster. And he disagrees with the idea that McCain's biography will hurt him with women.

McCain's biography, says Mr. McInturff, amplifies the way he handles issues. The campaign has started running an ad in South Carolina, site of the next GOP primary, on Feb. 19, that makes that point, he says. "It asks, what is courage?" says McInturff. "In Vietnam, it meant not leaving [prison] early. In South Carolina, it means doing what needs to be done, for you. It links over his lifetime."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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