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Commentary | MARGARET CARLSON

Why Bush Looks Good to Women

September 30, 2004|MARGARET CARLSON | Margaret Carlson is a contributing editor of Time magazine and a panelist on CNN's "The Capital Gang." Her weekly column in The Times starts today.

Freud, on his deathbed, asked, "What do women want?" The improbable answer, it now seems, may be George W. Bush.

According to pollsters, the gender gap that usually helps Democrats is shrinking. The reason may be as simple as Bush himself: Post-9/11 pollsters say women prefer certitude and clarity to nuance and verbosity, staying alive to after-school programs. Democrats wail at the loss of their usual edge with women, at the irony of the National Guard slacker beating the Silver Star warrior on the issue of strength. But bluster and repetition have apparently prevailed, especially when John Kerry has said both so much and so little. Hard to read, Kerry has let Bush and his evil genius, Karl Rove -- the architect of his political life -- fill in the blanks.

I don't buy Bush's strength, but in a campaign it doesn't matter what is real and what is fake; it's what will fly. Tonight, Kerry has a chance to press his case with women, notoriously late deciders with a long attention span and good impulse control. Though errant female voters are gettable for Kerry, it won't be easy. There are some troublesome biographical points. Marrying one woman vastly wealthier than you are looks like good fortune in matters of the heart. Marrying a second one looks like a calculated career move. Kerry's hooded eyes make him look like a brooder, but not the strong, silent type. At a totally superficial level, that orange tan is troublesome. Across the political spectrum, women do not trust a primper.

For women, says pollster Frank Luntz, consistency and having someone they can count on are essential. "It is better to be wrong," says Luntz, "than to lack constancy." Bush has had a field day exploiting Kerry's wavering. "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it," has become a Republican laugh line. That vote found its way into an ad after Kerry did the GOP the favor of going windsurfing off Nantucket during the Republican convention, just about the time Arnold Schwarzenegger was deriding girlie men in his Bush-approved convention speech. The result was one of the campaign's most successful ads -- the loner in his too-perfect outfit enjoying an elite sport with the voice-over "John Kerry: Whichever way the wind blows."

Both sides have tried to show off for Security Moms. Bush, of course, flew onto the carrier deck in full fly-boy regalia. Kerry arrived on Jay Leno's set gunning his Harley. He invites reporters to watch him play body-slam ice hockey and take pictures as he shoots pheasant.

But none of that could make up for failing to respond when the Swift boat veterans took aim at the heart of his claim to be strong enough to be commander in chief, and his standing among women suffered for it. For weeks, Kerry failed to point out that when Bush was protecting Texas from Oklahoma, he was turning his boat into enemy fire to save a comrade. Rather than stand up for himself, he held an endless series of meetings with an ever-expanding phalanx of advisors, until it was too late. Just how long would it take for President Kerry to leap to action?

Though Kerry is painted as a wishy-washy blowhard who'll outsource our national manhood to Jacques Chirac, Bush is the world's sheriff with no time for the United Nations, riding off to round up the bad guys. The one time he hesitated before striking back he had a woman-proof explanation. Criticized for sitting and listening to the rest of "My Pet Goat" (with apparent interest) after learning that the United States was under attack on 9/11, he explained that he didn't want to scare a bunch of children.

The fact is, Bush never steps out of his regular-guy character. Far from being a detriment, his mangled sentences add to his just-folks persona. When he stumbles using the word "litigious," he stops, theatrically, to define it, as if he just learned the fancy phrase. Compared with Kerry, with his comma-studded perorations, such a down-home fella must be honest.

Besides Rove, Bush has Karen Hughes, who blew the twins' debut at the convention (sex talk in front of Grandma?) but otherwise adds a cup of fabric softener to every event.

Laura is a piece of nostalgia -- too Stepford to be a role model for our daughters, but perfect to convey the essence of a 1950s marriage. Bush is the strong, reliable breadwinner who'll go downstairs and check on the noise in the night.

Plus Laura gives good back story: Like all Bush women, she winks that she's pro-choice. She explains how the president is actually for stem-cell research despite not being for it. She describes a Gary Cooper, not a John Wayne, pacing the South Lawn, agonizing over his decision to go to war. Maybe he's the type to stop and ask for directions, after all.

Tonight, Bush will be relying on style, and Kerry will be trying to overcome his. But even though the debates are as staged as the convention, women may be able to see behind the curtain.

Remember Bush 41, taunted for rightly resisting calls to charge into Baghdad and ridiculed as a lap dog, a wimp and every woman's first husband. To me the first Bush was every woman's second husband, the one you chose after you had all the false bravado you could stand from Bush 43.

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