Dole can't win without the women GOP leader steps up his efforts to lure vital female vote

Campaign 1996

August 09, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- Bob Dole may have shored up his support among social conservatives this week by giving in to their demands for unvarnished anti-abortion language in the GOP platform.

But, in doing so, the presumed Republican nominee did little to gain ground with another vital constituency that has turned a cold shoulder to his candidacy: women.

For months, Dole has trailed President Clinton by about 20 points among female voters for reasons that go well beyond abortion.

Now he heads into the convention with the spotlight fixed on his every move, and his gender gap.

"It's still there," said Republican pollster and Dole senior adviser Linda DiVall. "It hasn't gone anywhere."

Unless it does, Republicans and Democrats agree, Dole cannot win.

"It's hugely important," Karen Johnson, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said of the women's vote.

"The election will be won on it. We truly believe women are going to make the difference in this election."

Pollsters and strategists offer a variety of reasons for Dole's difficulty with women now.

Some contend that women have been turned off by what they perceive as harsh and heartless measures put forth by Republican hard-liners in Congress.

Others, mainly Republicans, say women haven't yet focused on the election or on Bob Dole. The numbers will change as soon as they do, they say.

But that hasn't happened yet.

A poll released this week by U.S. News and World Report showed Clinton 21 points ahead of Dole among women, only 6 points ahead among men.

A survey released Wednesday by Emily's List, which raises money for Democratic women candidates, showed Clinton's lead among women at 24 points, about the same as it was in May.

And a CNN/Time poll showed a virtual gender canyon, with Clinton winning 58 percent of the women's vote, Dole 30 percent.

Republicans take some comfort in the fact that their candidates have had a tough time with women in every presidential campaign since 1980, when a voting disparity between men and women first revealed itself. Such gender gaps have always narrowed by election time, never amounting to more than a 9-point gulf.

George Bush trailed Democrat Michael S. Dukakis by 18 points among women in the summer of 1988 and went on to win the women's vote by 4 points.

"It can be closed," said DiVall of the gap.

More attention to women

Dole's attempts to woo female voters have grown increasingly conspicuous as the convention nears. In his economic speech Monday, he said his tax-cutting plan was conceived for "the mother who works" and repeatedly referred to "women and men," and "mothers, fathers and children."

Last month, in a campaign swing through Pennsylvania with New York Rep. Susan Molinari, Dole highlighted small business owners who are women and vowed to hold a "women-only" White House conference on business.

The convention will feature a "ladies night" next Tuesday with Molinari as the keynote speaker and featuring other prominent women such as New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the convention co-chairwoman, and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

But some Republican women, such as Tanya Melich, author of "The Republican War Against Women," call such attempts to appeal to women "window dressing."

Melich, an abortion-rights supporter and lifelong Republican, said such moves as Dole's capitulation to social and religious conservatives on the abortion issue this week could so turn off moderate women that Clinton could end up with a landslide victory.

In fighting for more tolerant language on abortion, she and other Republican supporters of abortion rights such as Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe were quick to cite Dole's gender gap.

Although polls show abortion near the bottom of women's list of concerns, Melich believes her party's official position -- calling for a constitutional ban on all abortions -- is "symbolic of the attitude of the Republican national leadership that women don't have the moral authority to make their own childbirth decisions."

For her, it is a deal-breaker.

"I cannot and I will not support the Republican nominee because of what they have done out here in the last two days," she said this week.

Although abortion is clearly an influential factor -- those who voted for Bush in 1988 but not 1992 were largely women who supported abortion rights -- strategists of both parties say there are other, more salient issues responsible for Dole's gender gap.

Women voters, they say, generally favor a more activist role for government -- including safety net programs such as welfare and Medicare -- and believe Republicans in Congress have sought to dismantle such programs.

"A lot of what the Republican Congress did was good, but in the minds of women, it was too harsh," says Pat Harrison, co-chairwoman of a women's task force for the Dole campaign.

Other Republicans, such as pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, say women are not yet engaged in the presidential race and thus side with Clinton because he's a known quantity.

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