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Dole Bedeviled By Gender Gap Even In Firmest Gop Territory

Sun., July 14, 1996

Julie Carlson is Bob Dole’s nightmare.

She recalls crying the night George Bush lost the presidency, and voted a straight ticket two years ago to help her Republican governor and congressman win re-election landslides. But come November, “I will definitely vote for Bill Clinton and not Bob Dole. I’m a good conservative, but the Republican Party went way too far right for me.”

Even in fairly solid Republican territory, Dole and the GOP are bedeviled by the gender gap.

In national surveys, Dole routinely is competitive with Clinton among male voters but trails badly among women; In the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, for example, Clinton led 56 percent to 33 percent among women.

Here in Michigan, Clinton enjoyed a 13-point lead among women in a recent statewide poll. More stunning: Since Republicans took control of Congress, there has been a 15 percent drop in the number of Michigan women who identify themselves as Republicans to pollsters. “They are moderate-to-conservative and are now calling themselves independents,” said EPIC-MRA pollster Ed Sarpolus. “And they view Clinton as being on their side.”

This is not just Dole’s problem.

Teachers’ assistant Sue Deadman helped the GOP to its dramatic 1994 midterm sweep by backing Republican Dick Chrysler here in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District. She is a registered Republican but backs Clinton over Dole - and is thinking about voting Democrat for Congress.

“The Republicans are trying to cut education and all the things kids need,” Deadman said.

This gender gap is often attributed to Republican efforts to restrict abortion rights. Indeed, Chrysler’s district is one of 20 targeted by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. All have Republican incumbents.

But voter interviews and polling data suggest that abortion often is a secondary factor in the alienation that moderate and conservative women voice toward Republicans. Far more prominent were worries that Republicans want to cut Medicare and education programs - the very arguments advanced in Clinton and Democratic ads targeting swing areas of major states.

“I want to balance the budget, but the Republicans seem in such a rush they didn’t think about people,” Deadman said.

Clinton’s success in erasing the traditional GOP advantage on the crime issue also has helped him considerably. In Michigan, for example, nearly 60 percent of voters cited either crime, education or Medicare as their major concern.

“My son went to the mall and got confronted by a kid with a tire chain,” said Carlson, a mother of three from Midland, the center of another Republican congressional district north of here. To win statewide, Republicans need a solid cushion in Midland.

Yet while skeptical of his promises, Carlson hears Clinton talking about better schools and safer streets, and supports his gun-control efforts. And Dole? “I respect him as a veteran, my father was a veteran,” she said. “But tell me something he stands for? I haven’t heard anything yet.”

Dole’s efforts to break through have often been clumsy.

At a Chicago event on domestic violence, he was lectured by a liberal activist when he blamed welfare for wife beatings. Last week he awkwardly backed away from his call to repeal Clinton’s ban on assault weapons, and negotiated compromise language to the Republican platform acknowledging diversity of opinion over abortion. He spends less time now talking about working with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and more about his help to start the food stamp program.

“I have a gender gap just by being a Republican,” said New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman, who blamed some of the problem on the perception all Republicans oppose abortion rights, and some on a communications problem. “We tend to talk about achieving goals and not putting it necessarily into a human face, which I think it is absolutely essential.”

Choosing a woman for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket might help, but there are few prospects. Whitman’s tax-cutting record is appealing, but her outspoken support of abortion rights makes her unacceptable to the GOP’s powerful social conservative wing. She is in line for a prominent role at the next month’s Republican National Convention.

Dole aides also are trying to tailor parts of a taxcutting economic package to women voters, who tend to be more pessimistic about their economic future than men.

Carlson, for example, stays home with her three children, but her husband, a department store manager, often works 16-hour days. “We think it’s better than having no clue as to what your kids are doing,” she said.

Four years ago, “I was secure with George Bush and thought Clinton was a liar.” Now, she laughs when asked if she could be swayed by a Dole tax cut and talks of convincing her Republican husband to back Clinton, too.

“I am trying to explain to him, issue by issue, that ‘Dole is not the guy for you,”’ Carlson said. “It’s a lot of work.”

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