March 18, 1996 in Nation/World

Women Voters Remain Skeptical Of Gop, Dole

Dick Polman Philadelphia Inquirer

Tanya Melich was a hot-blooded Republican back when the New Deal was cool. As a Utah youngster in 1940, she handed out fliers for Wendell Willkie.

She signed on as a delegate for Richard Nixon in 1972, and she did the same for George Bush in 1992.

But this year, she won’t lift a finger.

“There isn’t much nutrition in the Republican Party today,” she says. “So many women feel this way. … When you see how these candidates never talk about the things we care about - child care, education - then a lot of women Republicans say to themselves, ‘Why should I bother?’ I hear it all the time: ‘They don’t offer me anything.”’

So, Melich wonders, “Can Bob Dole figure out a way to come to terms with this problem? Can he bring Republican women like me back to the party base? If something really courageous and bold doesn’t come from him, then I think he’s in really bad trouble.”

Therein lies the next challenge for Dole. His latest rout, on Super Tuesday, masks some of the strains within his party.

Basically, a sizable number of Republican women now fear that the party of Abraham Lincoln has been hijacked by the religious right, and they aren’t eager to stick around. Millions bailed out in 1992, and that’s one reason why Bill Clinton wound up in the White House.

This year, the same warning signs abound. Women are boycotting GOP primaries, and analysts don’t see that as a sign of party health.

On Feb. 8, a national poll reported that the female share of the primary electorate would be 53 percent. But thus far, according to exit polls, their share is roughly only 45.5 percent. In Iowa and New Hampshire, the figure was 44 percent; in New York last week, it was 41 percent.

“Women aren’t responding to all the Republican budget-cutting of things they care about,” says Curtis Gans, a Washington expert on voting behavior. “Many aren’t responding to the Republican right-wing position on abortion. Many aren’t responding to the tough-guy macho image of the Republican freshmen in Congress. Republican women, more than men, believe in ‘constructive government,’ and they don’t see a humane debate in this primary season.”

Also, “women don’t like all the nasty infighting that’s been going on,” says Ruth Mandel, a Rutgers University analyst of women in politics. “The primaries just sound like a lot of men yelling at each other. It’s not surprising that women voters, more than men, would recoil from that sort of thing. Women have a history of recoiling from bellicosity.”

Not all Republican women, however, are disenchanted.

Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed is bringing millions of female conservatives into the party, and many mainstream loyalists - ranging from New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, a supporter of abortion rights, to Michigan party chairwoman Suzy Heintz, an abortion foe - are trying to work with all sides.

“We have a lot of voices,” says Heintz. “We have plenty of room for a lot of opinions. I think we’re doing a great job, allowing all these discussions to go on. The whole argument that a lot of Republican women won’t vote for Dole - I just don’t believe that.”

Meanwhile, Democrats are watching with great interest. They hit bottom when the Republican Congress was elected in 1994, and they’re eager to recoup.

But to do that, they need women. It’s clear, from the figures, that Democrats lost in 1994 because women didn’t bother to vote. One statistic says it all: Of all the dropouts - those who showed up in 1992 but stayed home two years later - 59 percent were women.

It’s no accident that Clinton already is running a campaign ad that highlights his State of the Union remarks on children, education and health care. Another ad is expected to stress Clinton’s efforts to combat domestic abuse.

Democrats believe they are starting to reap some rewards. Two months ago, when a Democrat won a U.S. Senate race in Oregon by a single percentage point, women cast 57 percent of the ballots. The gender gap was huge: Women favored the Democrat by a 7-point margin, while men favored the Republican by 10 points. The outpouring of female voters was interpreted as a backlash against the Republican Congress.

Friday, Emily’s List, a group that raises money for Democratic female candidates, will launch a national program to stoke up the female vote.

Yet, it’s too early to get cocky, as one Democratic strategist privately warns:

“We can’t take women for granted. They voted for Clinton in 1992 because they believed his promise of ‘change.’ But they stayed home in 1994 because they didn’t have a sense that Clinton and the (congressional) Democrats could deliver for them, particularly on economic issues.

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