BOSTON — Women's rights activists have grown increasingly anxious that Sen. John F. Kerry is failing to shore up a key constituency after recent polls showed that female voters are backing him by just a small margin.
With Republican presidential candidates generally performing well among male voters in recent elections, Democratic presidential contenders need a strong showing among female voters to be competitive. But the recent surveys have found Kerry up by as little as four percentage points over President Bush.
In 2000, by comparison, Democrat Al Gore beat Bush by 11 points among female voters -- which was precisely Bush's margin over Gore among male voters.
The worried women's rights leaders say that Kerry's campaign has all but ignored female voters in its organizing and in its message. In recent days, campaign officials have acknowledged that they need to bolster Kerry's standing with women.
Several of the women activists said that as Kerry has tried to move to the political center and to project strength on national security, he had given short shrift to issues such as equal benefits and abortion rights.
"The women's vote should not be taken for granted," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. "He runs the risk of the entire campaign if he does not succeed in getting the message out to women that he is the candidate who will make sure they have decent jobs and fair benefits."
Gandy and others said the Massachusetts senator had given Bush an opening to appeal to female voters with his "W is for Women" campaign, which featured First Lady Laura Bush as her husband's top surrogate.
The president's reelection effort has worked to create a grass-roots network of female supporters, giving them material about Bush's agenda to distribute at "W is for Women" house parties.
On Friday, the president's campaign trip to Charlotte, N.C., was focused on gaining support from women. Before a largely female audience, he promoted his tax cuts as beneficial to female-owned businesses, and argued that the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq had improved conditions for women in those countries.
Many women's rights activists express astonishment that Kerry has not sought to capitalize on his longtime support for abortion rights or assailed the Bush administration's policies on women's issues, including a ban on U.S. aid to international family planning organizations that discuss abortion.
"The fact is that George Bush is the commander in chief of a war on choice," said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "Kerry needs to smoke Bush out and he also needs to advance his own agenda."
But Kerry has shied away from promoting his support for abortion rights, apparently out of concern for alienating swing voters. At times, he has emphasized his personal opposition to the procedure.
According to several activists, some of Kerry's aides have lobbied to get the campaign to focus more directly on women's issues. But they said the candidate's largely male group of advisors dismissed those entreaties, confident in his lock on the women's vote.
That attitude may be changing. On Friday, during a meeting at Kerry's Washington headquarters, top aides pledged to beef up their outreach to women, participants said.
On Monday, Kerry plans to spotlight his record on abortion rights and support for equal benefits at a New York luncheon hosted by Redbook magazine.
Ann Lewis, who heads the women's voting effort at the Democratic National Committee, said Kerry's standing among women dropped mainly because of the assaults on his military record in August.
But she said the campaign was determined to rebuild his margin, and had begun hiring organizers to go after female voters in battleground states. The DNC has been targeting single women voters with its "Take Five" program, an effort to get women to bring their friends to the polls.
Lewis insisted that Kerry had been reaching out to women, noting his recent focus on healthcare. But she conceded that much of his effort had been drowned out by the attention paid to his service in Vietnam.
"We are now going in the right direction," she said. "We just need to make sure we ... pick up the pace a bit."
Some activists said the campaign had been promising them more action for months.
"There are no words that will reassure us," Gandy said. "They need to put campaign muscle behind recognizing and turning out the women's vote."
In July, the campaign appointed California farm worker activist Dolores Huerta as chairwoman of Women for Kerry. But in an interview, Huerta said she had been frustrated by the lack of resources to organize programs.
"I was very concerned because I did feel -- everyone kind of felt -- that women's issues should be part and parcel of this whole campaign," she said.