Amid all the strategizing and message-mongering and imagemaking of the 2004 campaign, all aimed at attracting various demographic groups, one stark fact has risen to the top: President Bush has made serious inroads with women voters, to the point where, in some polls, he is beating Democrat John Kerry among females. If that trend holds, Bush will almost surely win reelection.
Democrats have long held an edge among women voters, a slight majority of the electorate, and grown to count on them to offset the Republicans' persistent advantage among men. Traditionally, women have given extra care to issues that favor Democrats, such as healthcare, education, and Social Security. Now, the war on terror - and the way Bush is playing it - appears to have shifted that calculation somewhat.
"Bush is trying to reassure them on healthcare and education, saying those things are important, but really it's security," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "Women give him a 23-point advantage on security, and that's what's really driving their vote."
Particularly over the past month, the president gets credit for making the war in Iraq part of the war on terror in many women's minds. While women used to give Senator Kerry an advantage on the Iraq war, they now give Bush a 10-point advantage, Ms. Lake says. And, she adds, "even though they give Kerry a 16-point advantage on the economy, they're not focused on it."
What's really happening is that Bush has made inroads lately among both women and men, says Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. And, she notes, there's still a gender gap - the difference between the proportion of men and the proportion of women who support a candidate.
But she agrees that Bush has gained by aggressively shifting the focus of the country to security. "It's the combination of the Republican convention and Bush hammering at that message, plus recent events in Russia," says Ms. Carroll, referring to the terrorist takeover and massive death toll at a school in southern Russia. That tragedy, which took place in a remote location, reminded Americans that an attack could come anywhere. Some voters give Bush credit for the lack of terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11.
"The challenge for Democrats is to get people either refocused on domestic issues or somehow cut into the advantage that Bush seems to have on terrorism, homeland security, and even Iraq," says Carroll. "There's a perception that Kerry has not clearly articulated an alternative position on Iraq."
There is an abundance of recent polling data on gender to give Bush joy and Kerry anguish. The latest Newsweek poll shows identical numbers for men and women in the race: Men favor Bush 49 percent to 43 percent, as do women. In Time magazine's post-GOP convention poll, Bush led Kerry by 1 point among women - a dramatic reversal from Kerry's 14-point lead among women a month ago.
The latest TIPP poll for The Christian Science Monitor shows Bush closing the gap with Kerry on two key indexes. On leadership, a 9.8-point gap between men and women in June closed to 1 point in September - with Bush's score among women rising more than 6 points as it declined 1 point among men. On economic optimism, an 8.6-point gap in June is just half a point in September, with women's optimism rising as men's fell slightly.
Other data show the traditional breakdown between men and women. The latest American Research Group poll shows Bush beating Kerry 51 percent to 42 percent among men, while Kerry beats Bush 50 percent to 42 percent among women.
But no Democrats are resting easy, as long as some polls show Kerry with trouble retaining women's votes. They know that in a race that remains close, they must turn out their base voters - and that there's little margin for error. According to Lake, 66 percent of undecideds are women.
One of Bush's not-so-secret weapons is his wife, Laura, the most popular figure on the campaign trail. Kerry's wife, Teresa, a foreign-born billionaire, is not as accessible to middle America, and is less well-known to the public, pollsters say.
Bush and Kerry have also done much image-shaping this campaign season, some of it with a gender-oriented slant. In one turn, they are both flexing their macho muscles - Kerry being the gun-toting, motorcycle-riding, expletive-using he-man while Bush clears brush at his ranch and makes jokes about his Texas swagger.
To some women, all that may be a turnoff - but in this post-9/11 world, analysts say, just as many of the "security moms" want a little macho in the White House (or a lot). To the women who roll their eyes at all that manly posturing, both campaigns have offered up their guys' softer sides. Kerry made nice with Regis and Kelly this week. Both candidates have sat for interviews with Dr. Phil.
But Linda DiVall, a GOP pollster and expert on women voters, thinks all that pales in comparison to Bush's core appeal: "More than anything, voters see a moral clarity with Bush, a man of conviction."
For some women with views that conflict with the president's positions, this is a year when one issue tops everything else. Dori Rocco, a receptionist at Confetti's Hair and Body Studio in Ross Township, Pa., favors abortion rights, gay marriage, and expanded stem-cell research, but she has just changed her registration from independent to Republican and will vote Bush in November. "I think he's a strong leader," says Ms. Rocco. "I think he's the best on the war on terror."
In the university town of Madison, Wisconsin, it's hard to find Bush supporters. But among women interviewed there, it was also hard to find someone enthusiastic about Kerry. One woman named Jeanne, who declined to give her last name, has suffered financially in recent years and certainly won't vote for Bush. "He's for the rich people," she says. "He's for the oil. He's for himself." But, she adds, "I'm scared of Kerry." Her vote, if she turns out at all, remains up for grabs.
• Frank Bures and Sara B. Miller contributed to this report.