Fight intensifies for votes of women

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 1/22/2000

ORTSMOUTH, N.H. - For many Democrats, the scariest thing about Texas Governor George W. Bush's tax-cut plan is that he says it's aimed at single mothers.

''The hardest job in America is to be a single mom, making $20,000 a year,'' Bush declared at a recent Rotary Club lunch where he promised that as president, he would reduce the struggling woman's marginal income-tax rate and ''knock down her tollbooth to the middle class.''

The idea of a single mother becoming the poster child for a presidential candidate in a party that typically defines family in two-parent terms is remarkable enough. Moreover, it signals Bush isn't ceding the Democrats' usual advantage with women voters, but has a strategy to appeal directly to women on issues and to contrast himself as a strong, moral man determined to restore integrity to the White House.

So far, Bush is having some success. Today, with the nominating process about to begin, the gender gap that has vexed Republican presidential candidates and twice elected Bill Clinton isn't bothering Bush. National polls consistently show him beating Vice President Al Gore and leading him among likely women voters.

''Gore's problems with women persist,'' said a report from the Pew Research Center, which released a poll this week that has Bush defeating Gore 51 percent to 39 percent overall, ahead of the vice president 49 percent to 42 percent among women and 54 percent to 35 percent with men.

Celinda Lake, a Gore pollster, acknowledges that the vice president is not getting the benefit of a gender gap in the hypothetical general election matchup (though some polls suggest he does have an advantage among women when matched against his Democratic rival, Bill Bradley.) The reason, Lake said, is that ''cross-pressured women'' - defined as those who tend to agree with Democratic positions on issues but are disgusted with Clinton's immorality and his abuse of his office - ''favor Bush pretty solidly. ''

''These women are the soccer moms of the 2000 elections,'' said Lake, noting that women who would be inclined to support Gore are holding the administration's scandals with campaign donations and Monica S. Lewinsky against him. ''They will be the decisive women voters this cycle and the key to that election.''

Lake's latest data show that cross-pressured women make up 17 percent of all likely voters. Unlike 1996's soccer moms, who mostly were married, upper middle-class, and lived in a suburb, cross-pressured women span a wider range of income and education levels, Lake said. Both Bush and Gore are targeting them as they campaign to improve schools, expand day care, create economic opportunity for the working class, and bring family values to the White House.

Patricia Wood, an unemployed dietitian, a married mother of two, and an undecided voter, attended the Rotary lunch and listened intently as Bush talked about his ''compassionate agenda'' and the joy of being part of a family of ''wonderful women'' - his wife, twin daughters, and mother.

''What went on in Washington over the last couple of years really has colored the image of the candidate I want to vote for this time around,'' said Wood, who lives in Exeter, N.H. ''He has to be moral and ethical, absolutely. My decision hinges much more on who the candidate is than where he stands on the issues.''

Polls show that a majority of Americans now believe Democrats are more capable than Republicans of handling almost every issue, from the economy to the environment, from crime to Social Security. The problem for the Democratic candidate, whether it is Gore or former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, is that times are so good that issues probably won't be as important as character when voters choose the next president.

''People are more interested in a change of leadership than a change of direction,'' said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. ''They want a new face, someone who is very un-Clinton.''

Bush is a new face but from a familiar family, and many women remember his parents, President Bush and his wife, Barbara, as dignified and respectable. ''I think we need to get a stable family in the White House,'' said Amy Koch, who attended a recent Bush town meeting in Londonderry. ''I'm undecided, but I lean toward Bush because I liked his father.''

GOP pollster Linda DiVall says Bush may draw from his father's popularity, but he has developed a distinctive persona to win women's votes that ''is not prototypical of Republican presidential candidates. ''

''In Bush, women see someone who has children, who is younger, and who understands the time pressures and cultural demands they face every day,'' DiVall said.

Democrats say Bush may be smartly wooing women, but the flirtation won't last. When the time comes to settle down with a presidential choice - and women typically make up their minds later than men - it will be with the Democrat.

''Right now George Bush is all sizzle. When women begin to focus on his record and find out that he is more conservative than compassionate, they will move away from him, and it will fix the problem very quickly,'' said Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, a political action committee that raises money for Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights.

Linda Fowler, who conducts polls for the Nelson Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, says Bush definitely lost some support among Republican women in New Hampshire as his closest rival, Arizona Senator John McCain, became more well-known. Between October and January, Bush's support among women dropped from 47 percent to 36 percent, while McCain's surged from 26 percent to 42 percent.

A recent Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll showed Bradley with a lead over Gore among men - 49 to 40 percent - while Gore enjoys a slightly smaller advantage among women.

At a recent town meeting in Salem, N.H., Gore reminded women that he has deep feminist roots - his mother worked her way through Vanderbilt Law School to become one of its first female graduates - and as a senator and vice president he championed pay equity, abortion rights, and child care.

Audrey Haynes, who advises the vice president on women's issues, knows there are some cross-pressured women Gore will never win over. ''But many women have yet to hear the vice president, recognize his accomplishments, and remember this election is about the future, not about reliving the past.''

The Rev. Carolyn Keilig is grappling with that. The Hopkinton, N.H., pastor voted for Gore in the 1988 primary here and would vote for him again if she could get over feeling he was tainted by his association with Clinton.

''I know it's not fair to do that to Al Gore,'' Keilig said as she waited for McCain to show up for a town meeting, ''and I'm trying to separate who he is from who he worked for. But the president lied. And if you don't have integrity, nothing else really matters.''