Behind the gender gap

President Bush makes overtures to women, but is largely solidifying support among men.

When President Bush addressed a Cleveland forum on women's entrepreneurship this week, the visuals matched the theme - the president standing with women. But the talk's focus on jobs seemed aimed more at Ohio, a central battleground of the 2004 election and a state struggling with massive job losses, than at the female vote.

In a nation where the "gender gap" has become a permanent feature of electoral politics, Bush is finding it as difficult as most other recent GOP presidents to bring women to his side. So far this year, the Gallup Poll gap between male approval and female approval of Bush is above 7 percent - slightly higher than it was in 2001.

Bush can get away with lower support from women as long as he keeps support from men high. And that is exactly what the president seems to be doing in the early phase of the campaign: solidifying and expanding his support among men (see appearances at NASCAR and the Houston rodeo) and saving the "compassionate conservative" theme of 2000 for later in the campaign.

"Each side's in a fight now to expand their base and mobilize their base," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who notes that that's why Bush adviser Karl Rove is talking less about women and more about getting the 4 1/2 million born-again Christians who didn't vote in 2000 to turn out for Bush this time. "That's why we're saying we can get unmarried women, Hispanics, and African Americans."

To be sure, the Bush campaign isn't ignoring women. First lady Laura Bush has stepped up her political activity in recent months, spearheading efforts on women's health and appearing in Bush campaign ads. The Bush administration has pushed through major reforms in education and healthcare, issues that are especially important to women. But the public prefers the Democrats' positions to the Republicans'.

Still, says independent pollster John Zogby, the gender gap under Bush isn't as big as it has been under previous presidents. "The reason is that there's a marriage gap," he says. "Married women and married men tend to see things much more similarly. They're more conservative; they have more traditional family values."

And that is why there's a move afoot to target unmarried women, a segment of the population with a low rate of participation in politics. In the 2000 election, 68 percent of married women voted, while only 52 percent of unmarried women turned out. And those nonvoters would have, on balance, helped the Democrats.

The organization Women's Voices, Women's Votes, sees across the country a vast untapped population - 22 million single women, 16 million of them unregistered - that it wants to mobilize. The group is planning outreach to these women, through television, mail, Internet, and door-to-door canvassing.

Why are these women not voting? "They don't believe the politicians care about what they have to say," says project co-director Chris Desser, her conclusion drawn from focus groups and surveys. "When we respond with, 'Well, do you know there are 22 million of you?' - their minds are blown."

These single female nonvoters are also diverse - young, old, all races, rich, poor, divorced, never-married, widowed. Thus, they are hard to define, or at least to market to the press with a pithy nickname like NASCAR dads or soccer moms. But they share some traits: As unmarried people, they tend to bear their financial burdens alone - often as the sole caretakers for children, aging parents, or both.

"Healthcare is their No. 1 concern," says Ms. Desser. "Second comes employment - job parity, consistent employment, job security. Third is education. They want to make sure their children get a decent education and a shot at the American dream. They also know how important their own education is to job security and a decent salary."

In interviews on the street, women shared concerns as they look ahead to Nov. 2. Hilda DaSilva, a divorced mother of three from Brazil, fits the profile of the unmarried women that Democrats are keen to attract - though this is the first election she's eligible to vote in, as a newly minted US citizen. "I feel like a lot of people lost their jobs," says Ms. DaSilva, who lives in Somerville, Mass. "Healthcare has gone down so badly. I love this country, I see a better life here.... [But] I don't trust [Bush]."

For Susan, a married woman in her 40s who lives in suburban Boston, the issues are the economy, jobs, and healthcare. But national security factors in as well.

"I voted for Bush, but the whole war in Iraq - at first I thought it was a good thing, and then they never found the weapons of mass destruction," she says. "And the economy has tanked. I think back to his father, and the Democrats were saying, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' And I don't feel like I'm better off."

Sara B. Miller contributed to this report.

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