'W Stands for Women' — But Which Ones?

Laura Bush appears in a new Bush campaign ad

hide captionFirst lady Laura Bush appears in a new Bush campaign ad, touting the president's education policies.

From GeorgeWBush.com

The Bush-Cheney '04 campaign is setting its sights on female voters, and it's bringing out a potentially powerful weapon: first lady Laura Bush.

This Wednesday, Mrs. Bush appears on The Tonight Show on NBC. Last week, the campaign unveiled an Internet ad featuring Mrs. Bush set to run on Web sites such as Ladies Home Journal and Baby Zone. In the ads, the former librarian defends the president's education policies and speaks of his passion for America's children. She closes the sale by reminding women "when you vote this fall, you're voting for our future. Please vote for President Bush."

Mrs. Bush may lack the dynamism and ambition of former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, but Republicans are hoping her low-key, approachable style and sincere talk about family values will help keep married women — who constitute the core of Bush's female base — in her husband's corner.

Mrs. Bush is at the forefront of the GOP's strategy to win over women voters, a constituency that traditionally favors Democrats. It won't be easy: In the 2000 presidential race, George W. Bush received 43 percent of the female vote; 54 percent of women voters choose to put their support behind Democrat Al Gore.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush seemed to be making headway. A Gallup Poll in 2002 found 67 percent of women approved of his leadership, as compared to 64 percent of men. Women — especially white and Latin women with children — had a greater sense of being at risk from terrorists than men, according to polls. Those women trusted the Republican president to keep terrorists away from their loved ones and homes. The "Soccer Moms" of the 2000 presidential election had been transformed into "Security Moms."

But in the last year, the gender gap has returned to prominence as a problem for Bush. In August 2003, the Gallup Poll found women 15 percentage points less likely than men to approve of the president's performance in office — 67 percent to 52 percent.

That gender gap is also surfacing in the race for the White House. Most polls show Sen. John Kerry with an advantage in the range of 10 percentage points over Bush among women.

Backing for Bush is weakest among black women. Hispanic women are more supportive, but worry about his record of cutting taxes at the expense of social welfare programs. Among likely female voters, married whites constitute the backbone of Bush's support. That's good news for Bush: Married women comprise more than half of all women of voting age — and about three-quarters of married women are registered to vote.

In the 2002 mid-term elections, 56 percent of married women voted Republican. That was 17 percentage points higher than the vote for Republicans from unmarried women — those who've never married, are widows, separated or divorced. Overall, single women have more negative views of the Bush presidency and plan to vote for Kerry.

Unmarried women are a sizeable group, but fewer are registered to vote. About half of unmarried women reported voting in the 2000 presidential contest, while two-thirds of married women voted. Single women tend to have different concerns: They're more focused on abortion rights, getting paychecks equal to those of men, the affordability of going back to college or getting job training. In contrast, married women generally appear more concerned about homeland security, financial security for their families and public school education for their children.

So while both the Bush and Kerry campaigns say they're concerned about the women's vote, they're really talking about two very distinct groups of women. Republicans are focusing on retaining their support among white, married women. Democrats are looking to pump up the vote among single and minority women.

"W stands for Women," Scott Stanzel, the Bush campaign press secretary, told the L.A. Times last week in explaining Mrs. Bush's appearance in an ad campaign. "We are reaching out to women who are interested in education and the president's policies." Stanzel has told reporters that those policies include protection from the terrorist threat, so that "we fight the war on terror in Baghdad not Boston, and in Kabul not Kansas City."

That pitch to American women is likely to keep on coming from women close to Bush. Last week, the president's campaign arranged for his sister, Doro Bush Koch, to participate in an online conversation hosted by its Web site. Earlier this year, the White House launched a national campaign that used Mrs. Bush to explain her husband's efforts to cut heart disease among women.

Not to be outdone, the Kerry campaign is also rallying the women in his life to sing his praises.

Kerry's daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa, will stump on issues such as the environment and their father's pledge to create more jobs. Democrats especially need women in the age range of Kerry's daughters — younger, white single women that pollsters call the Sex and the City vote — to increase their registration and turn-out. The recent abortion rights march in Washington may have been very good news for Kerry, given the large number of young, single women who made the trip to Washington.

The senator's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, also offers a strong link to independent older women, especially widows and divorcees. In her interview with Barbara Walters, Heinz Kerry revealed that a doctor once recommended she have an abortion because of medical problems, but a miscarriage ended the pregnancy. That personal revelation cut a clear path for her husband to the abortion rights position central to the concerns of so many single women voters.

Regardless of whether female voters are ultimately swayed by the women of the Bush or Kerry clans, one thing's for sure: Their vote certainly isn't being ignored.

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