Courting undecided women

September 05, 2004

HIS DAUGHTERS say he's cool. His wife says he has a good heart. Arnold Schwarzenegger made clear he's no girlie man. Rudolph Giuliani thanked God he was there when terrorists struck. John McCain trusts him to be a wartime commander in chief.

Such endorsements of George W. Bush by moderate, admired or at least knowledgeable sources from the podium at the Republican convention last week were intended to comfort female voters ("W is for women," the campaign buttons say), but they were not aimed at those still trying to decide whether Mr. Bush should have a second term in the White House.

Zell Miller's caustic attack on Democratic challenger John Kerry confirmed that the Bush campaign was using its convention to reinforce support among those already intending to vote for the president in order to boost their turnout.

Yet, as Labor Day signals the final sprint to the finish of this seemingly interminable campaign, both candidates should be paying sharper attention to women voters still waiting to be convinced, a swing vote that could easily decide the outcome.

Many of those women, pollsters say, are so focused on the day-to-day struggles of life that even the threat of terrorism is an abstraction.

Just as there is a gender gap in the inclination to choose Republican or Democratic candidates, there is a difference between men and women in voting patterns across the board. More women make it to the polls than men, and women tend to settle on a choice later in the contest. Thus, women now make up a disproportionate share of the tiny slice of the electorate believed to be still up for grabs.

Bush aides said their convention focus was on the so-called security moms, who first and foremost want a president they trust to keep them safe. Polls suggest Mr. Bush is already running well ahead of Mr. Kerry with those women, so the goal was to make them feel good about their choice.

Undecided women tell pollsters their chief concerns are jobs and health care, and they worry particularly about losing their jobs and not being able to find another one that offers health benefits.

Both presidential candidates talk about economic concerns and have offered some proposals. But with so much of the campaign focused on wars past and present, neither has made the sale.

Now is the time to get serious about bread-and-butter issues; Mr. Bush needs to convince women voters that under his leadership, their economic prospects will improve -- or at least get no worse -- or they will turn to Mr. Kerry. And the challenger almost certainly can't win without them.

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