Women voters re-examine their support for Clinton Disgust at his behavior could be costly for the Democrats in November

September 14, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Women voters, whose support helped carry President Clinton to two terms in office, are doing some serious soul-searching since the release of the report by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. And what they find could have a far-reaching political impact.

While they generally regard Clinton as the most ardent supporter of women's causes ever to occupy the White House, many women have expressed disgust at his alleged sexual improprieties.

Lynn Dent, a corporate attorney in Herndon, Va., who voted for Clinton in 1996 said yesterday that she was extremely disappointed with the president's behavior.

"He was absolutely a dog who threw away everything for immediate sexual gratification," Dent said. "We think all men are like that, but I can't believe someone would do it on such a grand scale."

The problem, some activists say, is that such reactions to Starr's report could produce widespread apathy among female voters. That could hurt the election chances of moderate candidates who share their views.

A survey by the Pew Research Center last week found that 51 percent of women said they planned to vote for a Democratic congressional candidate, compared with 41 percent for Republican, if the November elections were held today.

That is a 5 percentage point drop in Democratic support from women as compared with a similar survey taken in March.

Ten percent of women voters were undecided in the recent poll compared with only 7 percent in the March poll.

"I am extremely worried about voters -- particularly those who support the policies the president has advocated -- not coming out to vote because they are tired of the whole mess and just depressed," said Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

"And if there was ever a time they needed to vote, it's now. We can't allow the right wing to deepen their hold over the country's policies."

A recent national poll found moral concerns had jumped to a tie with crime and drugs as the most important issues for voters. That's a 10 percentage point jump since a similar report was released in January.

Part of the Republican strategy will be to present Clinton as a political and sexual opportunist: one who used support for women's issues to help get elected and then used former White House intern Monica Lewinsky when it suited his needs.

Making that argument easier are longtime Clinton supporters such as Patricia Ireland who has become openly critical of the president's apparent double standard.

"Congress and the president have one thing in common," she said. "Both have courted women for our votes. And both have cheated on us."

"I do think it'll cause a huge change in the 98 elections," she added. "I think we're going to end up with some really bad results like we did in 1994."

Clinton's female supporters point to his signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act, his veto of the partial-birth abortion ban, his appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court and his work to increase federal funding for day care and medical insurance for poor children.

An unforeseen windfall for women from the Clinton scandal could be the election of female candidates across the country, said Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus.

Nationally, 65 women (about two-thirds of whom are Democrats) are running for federal office, she said.

"What we're finding is not so much an anti-Clinton feeling as much as it is a 'to hell with all [men]' feeling. So women candidates are still a unique enough element to be seen as a positive alternative to business as usual."

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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