Ladies' man: Bush gaining among women

GOP women say female support is based on issues like education - and listening.

George W. Bush is getting in touch with his feminine side.

Over the past month, the Texas governor has been whittling away at the gender gap that traditionally besets Republicans. A recent Gallup poll shows Mr. Bush has been gaining about 1 point a week among women voters - and some surveys indicate he's now closed the gap entirely, putting him in a statistical tie with his opponent, Al Gore, for the female vote.

And Republican women officeholders think they know why. While their candidate may not take particularly women-friendly stances on issues like gun control, capital punishment, and abortion rights, lately he's been focusing more on issues like education and preventing domestic abuse.

Personal qualities come into play as well, they add. Bush's female supporters stress his skills as a listener, and point to the women surrounding him as important influences.

"He's a person with a great mother, great wife, who listens and respects women," says Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) of Washington.

Indeed, Bush himself seems to see his wife and mother as strong political assets. "One of the things I'm most appreciative of is strong, smart women. I was raised by one, I'm married to one," he said at a recent fund-raiser.

Wearing a "W. is for Women" sticker on her lapel, Representative Dunn says that among women, Bush polls well not only on education issues, but even on defense policy and tax cuts.

Also credited with Bush's gains is his unifying message and decrying of partisan rancor.

"A lot of folks talk about George W. being a very personal, amiable person," says Brian Edwards of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda, Md., communication and research firm. "On the stump, he really connects in a one-on-one way. I think that appeals a lot to women voters. They feel they know the person."

This personal charm has produced concrete results in the past. "In Texas, he has historically done well with women," Mr. Edwards says.

The Bush campaign points out it earned 67 percent of the female vote in his 1998 gubernatorial bid - an accomplishment they are hoping to repeat.

Even after the campaign begins in earnest after the late-summer political conventions, Bush will continue appealing to female voters, predicts Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas. "We're just going to talk about issues of concern to women."

Democratic strategists acknowledge that the Texas governor has made gains among a traditionally Democratic voting bloc by focusing on issues they normally win, such as the environment and education.

"Democrats usually own that issue," says David Doak, a Democratic media consultant at Doak Carrier and O'Donnell in Washington.

But, Mr. Doak says, Bush's gains have been made quietly in the past month, when combative campaign activity has been minimal. "In a sense, Bush has had the month to himself."

Since polls indicate women tend to support greater government involvement, Mr. Gore's advocacy for issues like universal preschool, prenatal healthcare, and health insurance for children may ultimately restore his levels of female support.

"It'll be easy for him to recapture his natural advantage when you get into the contrasting stage," Doak says.

Bush's female supporters are well aware that the toughest battles are yet to come, but they are determined not to lose traction.

A recent gathering of Republican women in Washington focused on how to maintain the ground gained thus far when the Gore campaign begins courting the female vote in earnest.

One key strategy, they determined, will be to communicate past party victories on women's issues.

In a speech last week, Dunn pointed out the Republican Party was the first to get behind women's suffrage, the first to send a woman to Congress, and the first to appoint a woman justice to the US Supreme Court.

Her colleague, Rep. Connie Morella (R) of Maryland, thinks Republicans tend to come in second among women not because the party hasn't championed women's issues, but because it hasn't adequately communicated their successes.

"I have long felt Republicans have done a lot for women, but have not known how to talk about it," Representative Morella says.

But while many analysts agree that the GOP hasn't done a good job of talking about women's issues in the past, some are still skeptical about the degree of progress that's been made.

"The gender gap is still there," says Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. in Washington. "It's not as wide as it's been in the last two elections," he says, but "that doesn't mean it's permanently gone."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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