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Women Are a Reckoning Force in Suburban Philadelphia

Race: The voting bloc--fiscally conservative but liberal on such issues as abortion--could be the deciding factor in a deadlocked state.


KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. — Yesterday they were dismissed as empty-headed Americans who pass their time at the mall. Today they are a voting bloc that may tip the balance in this battleground state.

Suburban women swept to the forefront so fast, Susan Garcia-Tunon said at a lunch spot here last week, that "I didn't even know I was a powerhouse."

In the final hours of a presidential race here that is virtually deadlocked, the women of suburban Philadelphia suddenly are a force that both George W. Bush and Al Gore must court. Down to the wire, statewide polls show an open contest: Rural men in this state are strongly pro-Bush, but the women of three key counties continue to waver about Gore.

Bill Clinton took Pennsylvania twice, and in 1996, he carried Delaware, Bucks and Montgomery counties, where attention is focused now. The counties are home to a large number of upper-middle-class voters who are fiscally conservative but liberal on hot-button issues such as abortion rights.

At first, it looked like Democratic nominee Gore would attract women voters here, as Clinton had. In September, Gore led GOP rival Bush, 53% to 31%, among Pennsylvania women. But in a poll released Tuesday, the vice president's lead among women had dropped to 45% to 38%.

If voters such as Garcia-Tunon, a registered Republican and full-time mother in her 50s, are any indication, the indecision may end only in the booth. "I like what one candidate says about this and what the other says about that," she said. "There isn't one candidate that meets all my criteria."

Well-educated, upper-middle-class, often married and happy not to work outside the home, these 40-and-older suburban women represent a genuine swing vote, said Elizabeth Sherman, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Regardless of party affiliation, she said, they are marked by a political history that spans the civil rights, antiwar and women's movements and personal histories that propel them toward autonomous voting decisions. "Only a generation or two ago, it was very common for married women to follow what their husbands did in elections," she said. "These women are more independent."

Still, she said, in the suburbs of Pennsylvania and elsewhere, Gore must buck a trend showing that 52% of married women nationally support Texas Gov. Bush--against 38% for the vice president.

"What you're seeing there is a big undecided factor," Sherman pointed out, exactly why suburban women--this campaign's version of the younger soccer moms--have emerged as an important slice of voters.

Among single women across the country, Gore takes a 20-percentage-point lead over Bush, said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. But they are outnumbered in the predominantly Republican suburbs by married women, who tend to have a more negative view of government and thus are more likely to support Bush, he said.

But whether single or married, Madonna added, women in the suburbs "tend to feel more intensely about education and health care than men." Unlike military affairs or the economy, these "softer" areas historically are seen as the purview of women. So, if they have new credibility as a voting engine, these women in the suburbs say, it's because their issues are in the limelight too.

"We've always been here, we've always had our issues. I think because there really are no other big problems--no wars and the economy's doing fine--we have some clout," said Chris Friel, 42. "There isn't anything major to worry about, so they have to focus on what are traditionally thought of as women's issues."

As the mother of a disabled child whose school services have been funded by the Clinton administration, Friel said she is "leaning toward Gore because I think he's more inclined to spend the money where I want him to."

Besides, she said, "I'm for choice"--the code-word for abortion rights. By supporting abortion rights, Gore attracts many female voters. Bush is vehemently antiabortion.

Taking a break from the Nordstrom sale at a giant mall here, Sally Hitchcock told her friend Sharon Hammond that that was reason enough to vote for Gore.

"She keeps trying to persuade me," said Hammond, a Bush supporter.

"We're both Republicans," Hitchcock said. "But I'm worried about Bush's economic plan. And I'm very worried about his abortion position. I'm adamant about that."

Sounding like an "I Love Lucy" routine, the two admitted they don't share their opinions with their wealthy, conservative husbands. Hammond said she lets her husband think she votes a straight Republican ticket, even when she doesn't.

"My husband walks around the house saying anyone who would vote for Gore is stupid," Hitchcock said. "I say, 'Oh, really?' "

Hammond has trouble with Bush's support of school vouchers and opposition to abortion rights, as well as what she deemed his overly ambitious tax plan. "That doesn't leave me much for Bush, but I can't go to Gore. I guess we're down to personality."

But 53-year-old Edna Patrick said she was amazed that anyone would include personality in a voting equation. "What's important is whether the candidate is capable."

That requirement puts Patrick squarely in Gore's camp. "I can't imagine anyone--even a Republican--voting for Bush. He just doesn't seem smart enough to be president."

Patrick said she thinks of herself less as a suburban female voter than simply as a voter. Nevertheless, she said, "Thank God they're taking us seriously, which they should have been doing all along."

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