Al Gore has a big problem with women.
Not the ones in his family. Not the mother who grew up dirt-poor and became a lawyer back during the Depression. Not his wife, Tipper, the writer, photographer, and advocate for children, who took on the record industry over X-rated lyrics. Not the daughters who've taken a strong role in his presidential campaign and who could be an important factor in drawing politically disillusioned young Americans to the ballot box.
The problem is with the millions of female voters who say they're inclined to back George W. Bush, thereby wiping out the "gender gap" advantage Democrats have counted on in recent years.
Mr. Bush leads Mr. Gore by 44 percent to 41 percent among women registered to vote, according to a Los Angeles Times poll released Tuesday. Compared to Bill Clinton's record - an eight-point advantage among women in 1992 and twice that much in 1996 - that's a major concern for the Gore campaign, especially when coupled with Bush's even stronger lead (52 to 37 percent) among male voters.
How to deal with it?
One suggestion gaining ground among observers is that it might be time to pull Tipper off the sidelines.
Robert Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and an adviser to past presidents (Republican as well as Democrat), suggests a major role for Mrs. Gore.
"I'd put Tipper on a campaign train through the South," Mr. Strauss told reporters over breakfast this week. The precedent, says Strauss, is the "Lady Bird Special," which carried Lyndon Johnson's wife on a similar trip during the 1964 campaign. At the time, Strauss didn't think it was such a great idea. But it turned out that Mrs. Johnson's solo campaign trip was an important factor in her husband's victory that year.
What would Mrs. Gore bring to a come-from-behind challenge for her husband? In short, much of what Al Gore does not - what Strauss calls simply "appeal."
"His style is his biggest weakness," says Michael Genovese, a presidential historian at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
In public, Mrs. Gore is warm, animated, and funny. And her accomplishments are considerable: raising three daughters and a son, earning degrees from Boston University and Vanderbilt, publishing two books ("Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society" and a collection of her photographs), overcoming depression after the Gores' young son was nearly killed when hit by a car, and working on behalf of homelessness and mental health.
A dose of spontaneity
Unlike her more-programmed husband, she can do the unexpected: Inviting homeless men and women to dinner parties at the vice-presidential residence, escaping the watchful eyes of the Secret Service to go on camping trips with her kids, wailing on the drum set she keeps in her family's home in Washington. (Years ago she played in an all-girl rock band called The Wildcats and once sat in with the Grateful Dead.)
Although she is one of her husband's closest advisers, observers say she would not become a "co-president" in the controversial mold of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But according to both Gores, Tipper has encouraged her husband to act on his emotional side as well as his considerable intellect. It's just that this more rounded personality is not apparent in his earnest - some would say off-putting - efforts to explain concepts and policies in full detail.
Would Mrs. Gore help the flagging campaign on important issues as well?
"Tipper is a good campaigner, but she has some negatives," says Dr. Genovese. "Her campaign against the music industry's suggestive lyrics, for example."
Campaign against rock lyrics
In the mid-1980s, Mrs. Gore noticed that some of the lyrics by rock stars her then-young children liked were by most parents' standards suggestive, if not obscene. Together with Susan Baker, the wife of James Baker, who held senior positions in the Reagan and Bush administrations, she formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), to pressure record companies to put warning labels on tapes and CDs.
Many in the industry came down on her like a Fender Stratocaster with a monster amp. Rock icon Frank Zappa called her a "cultural terrorist."
Since then, record warning labels have become commonplace and are no longer seen - even within the industry - as censorship (although the explicit content of many lyrics today make those targeted by Mrs. Gore seem almost tame).
Still, there are plenty of Gen Xers who remember the PMRC with disdain.
At the same time, Mrs. Gore's early fight for cultural decency could be a plus for Democrats. According to Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, voters connect Republicans more than Democrats with things like "commitment to family" and "knowing right from wrong."
All of which may argue for a strong campaign role for the woman who would be first lady.
"She has the same kind of warmth Lady Bird Johnson had," says Strauss. "She doesn't offend anyone, she's warm, and fighting for her husband is something women would find very appealing."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society