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The Clinton Republicans

Just as Reagan used conservative Democrats to build a GOP coalition, the president could similarly attract moderate Republican women to carry the day.

August 18, 1996|Martin Walker | Martin Walker, U.S. bureau chief of Britain's The Guardian, is author of "The President We Deserve; Bill Clinton's Rise and Falls and Comebacks," which will be published next month by Crown

SAN DIEGO — For the past 16 years, much of the American political landscape has been defined by the phenomenon of the Reagan Democrat--the blue-collar, ethnic and patriotic former Democrats who helped Ronald Reagan win the presidential elections of 1980 and 1984, and to whom George Bush turned in 1988.

But the role of the Reagan Democrat as the nation's political pivot may be giving way to an even more potent phenomenon. Despite all the best efforts of the Republicans in San Diego last week, and their presentation of that old familiar GOP elephant in sheep's clothing, we may be witnessing the arrival of the Clinton Republican--and she holds the fate of the nation in her hands.

The Clinton Republican is not just female. She is, cobbling together a composite portrait from various polls, a 35-year-old working mother with a high-school education or better. And she seems to be rejecting the Republican Party as viscerally as the blue-collar ethnics rejected the Jimmy Carter-Walter F. Mondale-Michael S. Dukakis Democratic tickets in the 1980s.

The tracking polls during the GOP convention run by the San Diego Union Tribune suggested that Bob Dole's convention bounce was largely a male phenomenon. Dole closed Bill Clinton's lead to four points (42-38) among males, but Clinton remained 19 points ahead among women, with a margin of 53-34. Yet, just as Mondale left the 1984 convention tied with Reagan, one CNN poll taken before Dole's speech showed the gender gap had been cut in half--but these numbers could prove as transient as Mondale's.

This was an acute disappointment to Michael K. Deaver and Paul Manafort, the impresarios of an event carefully designed to portray the GOP as female-friendly. The heart-warming filmed cameos of women and minorities were as central to their theme as the deployment of that great asset, Elizabeth H. Dole.

Elizabeth Dole launched her own private challenge in the presidential campaign in San Diego, her whole demeanor a promise to challenge First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton directly as an experienced political activist and former Cabinet member--but also as a traditional wife.

A star was born at San Diego, along with something new in U.S. politics: a foretaste of the first three-way campaign among presidents, vice presidents and first ladies. This was Hillary Clinton in soft focus--politically accomplished but unthreatening, a woman of power without harsh feminist edges.

Whereas Hillary Rodham's high-school classmates nicknamed her "Sister Frigidaire" in their yearbook, Elizabeth Hanford was awarded an equally revealing nickname when she worked in the Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon White Houses.

She was, in those chauvinist days, called "Sugar Lips," and her stellar performance of Grand Old Oprah, as she roamed the convention floor with a portable mike, explained the sobriquet. But this may not help. Bush suffered from a gender gap, despite being paired with the nation's favorite grandma in Barbara Bush. This problem requires far more than an appealing first lady to fix.

The Republicans gave it everything they had. Every flavor of GOP womanhood was on display, a tactic of saturation bombing in the hope that something would work.

For those who wanted red-hot political mommas, there was Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison with the endless sound-bite of "over-regulating, bureaucracy-trusting, class-baiting, privacy-violating, values-crushing, truth-dodging, Medicare-forsaking, property rights-taking, job-destroying" Clinton.

With that archetypal 35-year-old working mom and ethnic Catholic in mind, they offered Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, cast with her baby in the unlikely role of the Madonna of Staten Island. There was New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, as elegant as her bloodlines for those who thought the classic country-club look might work.

You want Asian? They had the Korean ancestry of Sen. Phil Gramm's wife. You want African American? They had the Capitol Hill policewoman who cried as she hugged Dole goodbye from the Senate. For drop-dead gorgeous, they offered supermodel Kim Alexis insisting that "a strong sense of family is what God wants for us."

There was an air of desperation about the female parade--as though the men who run the GOP tried to confront Sigmund Freud's baffled question--"What does woman want?"--and responded with everything they had in stock.

It was, of course, a shameless facade. The reality of the Republican National Convention was that women were strikingly less in evidence than in the past. In 1984, women were 45% of the delegates, and 44% at Houston four years ago. This year, the proportion was down to 35% for full delegates.

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