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CAMPAIGN 2000

Gore's Come a Long Way With Help of Women

September 18, 2000|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

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.

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