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latimes.com: Gore's come a long way with help of women

latimes.com LOS ANGELES (Los Angeles Times) -- Al Gore's surge in the national presidential polls has been powered by women, and Beebee Shale is one of them. She wanted to vote for George W. Bush. But as the election heads into its final weeks, she finds herself comfortably in Gore's camp.

"I didn't like Gore at first--all that Clinton stuff," said Shale, a 30-year-old suburban mother, shopping recently in downtown Chicago. "But then Clinton did the attempt at apology and Gore stood on his own at the convention. . . . I like that."

She also likes Gore's emphasis on education, and his and vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman's tough talk about Hollywood violence. She belittled the Republicans, particularly vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney.

"I heard he didn't vote in little elections for things like schools and stuff," she said. "How does that translate for care for the youth? The future of America?"

With brutal efficiency, Shale defined the breathtaking shift among women that has lofted Gore to his first leads of the campaign and throttled Bush's efforts. According to the Gallup poll, Bush has lost more than a dozen percentage points in support among women, from 46% in late July to 33% in a poll taken Sept. 8. During the same period, his backing among men dropped only a point, to 55%.

Gore, meanwhile, picked up 13 points among women, but only 4 points among men.

The "gender gap," the 20-year-old voting phenomenon that describes the disparate political alliances of men and women, looms larger this year than it has since 1988. Then, as now, there was a substantial gap between the views of women and men. That year, it was the sitting vice president, Bush's father, who rode into the White House on a late-in-the-campaign boost in support from women.

Gore's movement among women, who make up more than half of the U.S. electorate, has been fueled by a series of events, according to political analysts and voters interviewed by The Times:

The Democratic convention, where he declared his political independence from President Clinton and demonstrated his marital passion in a lengthy lip-lock with his wife, Tipper. His selection of running mate Lieberman, the Connecticut senator whose moralistic tone and effervescent embrace of the No. 2 role have lent buoyancy to Gore's campaigning. A series of stumbles by Bush involving off-color language, debate beefs and other snafus, including Cheney's spotty voting record. And Gore's repetitive emphasis on issues such as health care and education, just as more women are focusing on the campaign.

Before the parties' national conventions, much of Bush's strength had stemmed from his relative success in winning women's votes--a difficult voter group for any Republican, especially one with a conservative bent. Women, particularly in the last 20 years, have been more receptive to using government to help poor citizens, as Democrats typically prescribe, and have been skeptical of Republican attitudes concerning social and military issues.

Bush salved those concerns with his pledges of "compassionate conservatism" and his accenting of issues, such as education, which have long attracted female voters.

"People didn't necessarily know what his policies were, but he was talking about them," said Susan Carroll, a senior research associate at Rutgers University's Center for the American Woman and Politics. "Lately . . . Gore has had more attention and he is just pounding on those issues."

More than any one issue, however, Gore has gained the most ground by shifting the perception of his character, according to Carroll and others.

"The big reservation that voters, and women particularly, had of Gore was . . . 'Is this guy going to be a great leader?' " she said. "Since the convention, he's really come through [on that and has] been able to establish himself and hit hard at issues women care about. That's really moved women strongly."

In cities across America, many of the more than two dozen women interviewed said they had firmed up their support for Gore in recent weeks; others said they had switched from Bush to Gore. Others were sticking with their initial choice, be it Bush or Gore.

Brandy Cromer, pushing a stroller carrying her daughter Emily near the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, said Gore clinched her vote last week when he appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The highest-rated show among women ages 25-54--a key political demographic--Bush was due to be on "Oprah" this week.

"Gore was really positive for families and an advocate for education and for people being able to spend more time with their children," said Cromer, 30, who had been undecided.

Like many women, a swing voter--she sided with Clinton in 1996 and George Bush in 1992--Cromer added that some of Gore's comments were "made for TV" but that he nonetheless "seemed like a good family man."

Another woman switching her vote was Nickie Romeo, a 48-year-old Democrat from Nashville who seriously was considering Bush until Gore's Los Angeles convention speech.

"I changed my mind," said Romeo, interviewed during a Miami Beach vacation. "I just think his speech was unbelievable."

Like others, she cited the convention prominence of Tipper Gore, and the couple's eldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff.

"I love Tipper," she said. "And I like that he's got his daughters so actively involved in his campaign. I like the fact that Gore is for women, and I just don't think Bush is."

Her friend Karen Hickey, a Republican, said she too was won over by Gore's speech. "I couldn't pinpoint one thing," said Hickey, 49. "I just believe him."

Diane Mollins, a 50-year-old Miami Beach condominium manager, turned on its ear the pre-convention perception that Gore was too stiff and Bush more engaging.

"The more I see and hear Bush, the more I don't like Bush," she said. "I don't like his mannerisms, the way he speaks. He's not warm. . . . Bush seems a little more stodgy."

And the kiss Gore planted on his wife before his convention acceptance speech didn't hurt either.

"Even the way he kissed his wife at the convention, whether it was planned or not, it was just really, really nice," Mollins said.

More often than not, the female voters interviewed cited issues such as education, abortion and the environment as their link to Gore. Typically, analysts say, that kind of specificity reflects a tighter bond between voter and candidate.

"I really didn't like either of them originally," said Monika Griff, 54, of Silver Spring, Md. She now is leaning strongly to Gore because the next president is likely to appoint justices who could alter or preserve the Supreme Court's narrow defense of abortion rights.

"For me, it comes down to the Supreme Court justices," she said. "It's just too important an issue."

And Bush has his partisans, to be sure. Yet while The Times' sampling was unscientific, it found that more than half of likely Bush voters sided with him because of their antipathy toward Clinton. "I've been for Bush all along," said Elise Schaefer, a 32-year-old project manager for a Seattle communications firm. "The whole impeachment thing was a terrible episode."

That is an issue that has proved far more helpful in cementing the support of Republicans--a minority of the electorate--than in attracting Democrats and independents to Bush.

Few of the voters seemed drawn strongly to Bush himself. None of Bush's backers, for example, cited his tax cut plan--which Bush has cast as the central bulwark of his campaign.

Stacy Adams, pausing at an Atlanta coffee shop before picking up her young sons at school, cited Bush's gubernatorial duties and her admiration for his father, former President Bush. But she also criticized Gore.

"I don't trust Al Gore as far as I can throw him," she said. "He talks out of both sides of his mouth. His quest for fund-raising really bothers me. I have the sense that he would make deals with just about anybody, and that goes against the grain with me."

Seated near her was Carol Culp, who also is supporting Bush.

"I'd much rather have Bush do the nominating for the [Supreme Court] replacements," she said. "That will provide a much greater likelihood to turn over Roe vs. Wade, and uphold traditional family values, and have a chance of outlawing partial-birth abortions."

As the last several weeks have demonstrated, the mood of voters, women included, is volatile. And Republicans have reversed their standing among women in the past: President Bush was 20 points behind among women in May 1988, yet ended up fighting Democrat Michael S. Dukakis to a draw, according to Times exit polls. He made up the ground with a "kinder and gentler" argument--much like his son's "compassionate conservative" approach--and a harsh assault on Dukakis' liberal positions.

But Bush has only weeks left, and he is competing against a Democrat who has presented a far more moderate image than Dukakis did. Bush also has a strategic difficulty: The natural solution is to hammer Gore on the specifics of issues important to women. Indeed, on Sunday the Bush campaign characterized this week's schedule as focusing on issues that would appeal to women.

"Women are a key group," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, adding that he sees "a strong possibility" that women could defect back to Bush.

But polls show that when it comes to health care, prescription drugs, and some education matters--as well as handling the budget surplus--women favor Gore's insistence on a larger role for government over Bush's free-market prescriptive approach.

"I don't think it's going to help Bush a lot with women voters," Rutgers' Carroll said. "It's an interesting dilemma."

Bush's hopes may rest more with undecided women such as Janice Rhoades, a 27-year-old executive assistant in Seattle who is torn between a Democrat she considers "contrived" and a Republican she sees as "cold and arrogant."

"I guess I am waiting," she said, "for something to happen to make up my mind."


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Monday, September 18, 2000

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