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Married Women, Not Wedded to Either Camp, Could Be Deciding Bloc

Voters: 'If they come out, their decision could make or break this election,' one analyst believes.


PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — Standing before a wall of boys' athletic socks at the local Wal-Mart, Mary Kennedy is having a far harder time choosing between tube or crew-length than Al Gore and George W. Bush.

"I don't care for Gore's talk. He's cocky. Bush is more down to earth," the 57-year-old minister's wife says without deliberation.

Gore should be leading comfortably in this impoverished, pro-union state, a Democratic stronghold that has backed the Republican presidential nominee only three times since Herbert Hoover. Instead, Democratic nominee Gore is in a dogfight--in West Virginia and across the nation--and the reason in part is married women like Kennedy.

In Parkersburg, as elsewhere, their politics are shaped less by party rhetoric than life experience: tragedy, wealth, lineage and, often, local tradition.

They are the woman who was abandoned by her husband while pregnant with her third child and who knows the value of a government safety net. The real estate broker's wife who plays golf at the local country club, was born of Republicans, married a Republican and votes Republican. The mother of two teenagers unfazed when gun-toting deer hunters walk in for lunch at the neighborhood Kentucky Fried Chicken. And the party activist sent from the dinner table by her father when she announced as a teenager that she had just registered as a Democrat.

"Married women could make the difference and the reason is, married women vote. If they come out, their decision could make or break this election," said Elizabeth A. Sherman, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts.

For all the talk of the yawning gender gap, where women vote Democratic and men Republican, there is one group with whom Bush, the GOP candidate, very much holds his own: white married women.

A CBS/New York Times poll last week showed Gore with just a single percentage point lead among married women of all races--43% to 42%; among white married women, Bush had the edge--45% to Gore's 39%.

Culture Cuts Both Ways

Because various polls have shown Gore trailing so substantially among men, he needs to sizably offset the imbalances with the nation's mothers and wives. The challenge he faces is evident in Parkersburg, West Virginia's fourth-largest city, perched on the Ohio River, where cultural crosscurrents can make it difficult for some women to find the perfect home in either party.

People here hunt. Appalachian poverty is palpable. The environment is prized--75% of the state is covered in forest. But so are jobs, most of which come from coal and chemical industries that have left the state one of the country's most polluted.

So it isn't any wonder that Cynthia Wigal, a 41-year-old Republican and mother of two teenagers, is confused. The recent prosperity has given her a nicer home and two new cars, and she thanks President Clinton for that.

But guns have been a part of life since she and her Edison Junior High classmates were given loaded .22-caliber rifles and sent to a field behind the school to learn to shoot. And when hunters in camouflage came in while she was having a fried chicken lunch with her children last week, Wigal was reassured. "It's part of the culture here. It makes you feel safe in a sense."

Gore's call for stricter gun laws tilts her toward Bush. But the sight of children living in trailer shells on the edge of town makes her give the Democrat a second look: "You can't tell them from Calcutta. And you realize no one's going to volunteer to help them. No one's going to put coats on those kids' backs."

Working in Gore's favor is that women on the whole are more approving of government involvement in domestic issues than are men. Even solidly Republican women who favor less government spoke of the need for a sensible safety net.

"We don't have to put government in charge too much," said conservative Republican Donna Shaver, at the mall with a friend after the rain ruined a golf game at the country club. "But I would hate to think in our civilized society that anyone was not getting proper medicine."

For Deloris Kimball, that net is no mere abstraction. Years ago, when her husband left her pregnant with their third child, her father let the gas company drill a well in his best wheat field so she would have free heat. He told her if she ever took government handouts, he'd kick her out of the hollow.

She never did. But the knowledge that it was there was comforting just the same. The memory colors her politics even today, at 60 years old and remarried, with two small houses, a trailer and some rental property.

"Gore is more for the poor people," she says. "Bush has had it made all his life, riding on his family's name. He doesn't know what it is to be down and out."

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