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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Despite Gore's Behavior, He Holds Keys to California

October 05, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — George Bush scored with body language and plain language. But it's unlikely anything was said in Tuesday night's debate to diminish Al Gore's sizable advantage on issues in California, particularly among women.

Bush's smirk is less annoying than Gore's sigh. And the Texan's common speech--"We need to get after it here in America" on energy development--has a more pleasing ring than the vice president's Beltway spin-speak: "I will keep Social Security in a lockbox."

Still, according to recent California polls, most of the key issues the candidates spent time arguing about favor the Democratic nominee: Social Security, health care, education. The Republican's best issue is tax cuts.

But these largely are generic attitudes, rooted in party stereotypes and ingrained in voters' psyches. The current question is whether the candidates' personas might yet outweigh their policy positions in voters' minds.

That probably didn't happen in this first debate, at least in California. But one expert, a communications professor and Democratic activist, believes Gore had better be careful--especially among his female support base.

"Women are particularly sensitive to the nonverbal stuff--the sighs, the rolling of the eyes," says Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento.

"It's almost like a petulant kid, a spoiled child. . . . And running over time, speaking without breathing so nobody can interrupt him--that kind of demeanor will impact women more than men," she adds, citing research. "We're more sensitive because of raising kids and dealing with husbands.

"Civility's important. It all factors into the character issue. . . . Gore's too cute by half. He needs to back off."

And she's on his side.

*

It isn't a tight race in this state, unlike the nation as a whole.

The latest private polls--conducted by both Democrats and Republicans--find Gore running 11 points ahead in California. The figures go up and down with each new survey, but essentially Bush is not gaining ground.

This is what he's up against:

Women outnumber men by roughly 52% to 48%. And more women are Democrats than Republicans by a 12-point margin, according to nonpartisan pollster Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California.

A Baldassare poll last month found the two candidates running essentially even among men, but Gore winning by 20 points among women.

Asked which issues they wanted the candidates to talk about in their debates, the voters answered: schools, health care, Social Security and taxes, in that order. But these voters--especially women--already were predisposed to believe overwhelmingly that Gore "would do a better job" handling the first three problems. They had more confidence in Bush on taxes.

Women were almost twice as likely as men to prefer spending the budget surplus on bigger government programs.

All this came up during the debate, but Gore left himself one unused weapon for the future: guns. Gore favors more gun control; the Texas governor does not. Indeed, the Times reported Tuesday that the Bush administration in Texas has licensed hundreds of convicted criminals to carry concealed weapons.

Bush also opposes abortion rights. And Republican pollster Steve Kinney recently discovered how volatile the issues of abortion and guns are in this state, especially among women.

Kinney asked voters to rate--on a scale of 1 to 10--the importance of abortion and guns in their presidential vote. The surprising answer: 19% rated those issues the maximum 10. Among these voters, 57% were women. Also, 46% were swing voters. The majority wanted tougher gun laws; ditto no restrictions even on partial birth abortions.

"Abortion and guns can't move the electorate, but they can sway swing voters," Kinney notes. "In a tight election, that matters."

It's likely these issues already have mattered in California and are two reasons why the race isn't even tight.

*

"This thing was decided a long time ago," contends Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. "Bush is not liked here. There's just a natural suspicion of Texas. . . .

"A national candidate has to pass some sort of cultural mountain pass coming to California or else he's the Donner Party."

Two presidential debates remain. Gaffes, one-liners and likability still could shift votes.

But Gore's strategy all along has been to keep every debate, each day, focused on policy issues--not on personality or character. If Gore can--and he may need to control that sigh--he'll win at least California. Then he's one-fifth of the way home to the White House.

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