Female vote could be crucial in tight Democratic primary

Candidates hone images for women's perception

Election 2004

January 22, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. - As the Democratic presidential contenders search for a formula for capturing the nation's first primary here Tuesday, it might be women - more than any other group - who hold the key to success.

That could be bad news for Howard Dean and Wesley K. Clark, who are fighting to spark new interest in their campaigns after losing ground in recent polls. Both face a "gender gap" that could make that difficult.

Dean, whose aggressive and early attacks on President Bush's march to war in Iraq first elevated him to front-runner status in some states, has lost ground among women in what some analysts say is partly a reaction to Dean's angry, combative style.

Clark's background as a retired four-star general has hindered his ability to appeal to women as well. He must combat that if he is to make a strong showing in Tuesday's primary.

Both face challenges from Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, who have gained ground in New Hampshire after their surprisingly strong showings in Monday's Iowa caucuses and have been more successful in attracting female supporters.

In a state such as New Hampshire, where women make up 56 percent of Democratic voters, a gender gap can make a decisive difference.

"Women have tended to vote in higher percentages than men, and they pay attention to the issues and the differences between candidates," said Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "Candidates ignore gender differences among the voter preferences at their peril."

In New Hampshire, the gender gap has widened recently for Dean. The former Vermont governor once enjoyed 43 percent favorability among women, a figure that fell to 36 percent last week, according to daily tracking polls by the American Research Group.

Surveys of Iowa caucus-goers, paid for by the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and other media organizations, showed that Dean captured 1 percentage point more support among women than he did among men. But substantially more women than men voted in the Iowa caucuses: They made up 56 percent, compared with 44 percent men. Women are similarly expected to outnumber men in New Hampshire.

But some analysts say that Dean's frenzied speech in front of supporters after his dismal third-place finish in Iowa - punctuated by arm waving and a kind of screaming growl - has alarmed women even more than it has men.

"Women didn't like that; they don't feel comfortable with it," said Dick Bennett, who conducts the ARG poll. "Among women now, he's probably in the low 30s at best."

Dean has responded by playing up his background as a physician and a leader on health care, which ranks high on the list of issues women care about.

"A family doctor is a figure that women know and trust, and that's what Governor Dean was for much of his life," said Jay Carson, a Dean spokesman. "He's been out there delivering results on issues that matter to women, not just making speeches about issues women care about."

Dean also has pulled his wife, Judith Steinberg Dean, a physician and reluctant campaigner, onto the public stage with him in recent days, perhaps to allay doubts among women here who wonder aloud why she stays away from the campaign trail. She appeared next to a beaming Dean in Iowa the Sunday before the caucuses. And the two plan to sit down with ABC's Diane Sawyer today for an interview, a la Bill and Hillary Clinton.

`Starting to fade'

Still, Dean's outburst Monday was enough to make Dona Fairbairn, 58, of New Boston, "start listening better to other candidates," she said as she awaited Kerry's arrival for a speech at Daniel Webster College in Nashua yesterday.

"I'm just starting to fade on Dean," said Fairbairn, once a supporter. "The anger part is not appealing to me. I just got tired of some of the rhetoric."

Now she is starting to consider supporting Clark, Fairbairn added, "as much as I dislike having a military person as president."

Clark's main problem with women has been more about substance than style. Pollsters and campaign insiders concede that his background as a four-star general is a turn-off for some female voters who tend to shy away from hard-edged candidates.

"Women - especially Democrats - have sort of a predisposition of questioning the military, that they're not experienced or comfortable with that," said Lara Bergthold, the Clark campaign's political director.

Still, the retired general's gender gap appears to be narrowing, according to Bennett's polling. Earlier this month, he more than doubled his favorability among women in the ARG survey, from 7 percent to 15 percent.

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