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Governor's Race a Battle of Sexes as Men Favor Gilmore, Women Prefer Beyer

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 1997; Page B01

Roxane Gilmore hushed a gathering of breast cancer patients recently by telling them what her husband, Republican James S. Gilmore III, did when she was found to have Hodgkin's disease while they were students at the University of Virginia two decades ago.

"At the time, we weren't married. He could have gone away, but he chose to stay," she told the women at a Richmond cancer center, her eyes moist, her voice low. "When Jim is elected governor, I know that he will be as supportive of all of the people of the commonwealth as he was of me."

The story may have surprised Jim Gilmore -- "I didn't know Roxane was going to say what she said," he said later -- but reporters came forewarned. Aides to the GOP candidate for Virginia governor had tipped them a day in advance that his wife would have a poignant message for women.

The scene was a reflection of how Gilmore, in a tight race with Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr., is scrambling to try to make up what several recent polls have indicated is a gender gap in the Virginia governor's race.

Poll after poll has shown that although Gilmore holds a solid lead among men, he trails Beyer among women, who both campaigns say constitute an increasingly crucial voting bloc. Strategists in both camps point to surveys indicating that women make up a bigger share of the electorate -- 54 percent in Virginia last year -- and include more swing voters, those who wait until just before an election to decide on a candidate.

Surveys have indicated that men typically respond more to pocketbook issues, and many men who support Gilmore have cited the Republican's plan to phase out most of the state's personal property tax on cars and trucks. Female voters, polls say, respond more strongly to education and family issues, long a priority of Beyer's.

The Democrat, meanwhile, has continued to focus on women with events such as a luncheon with former Texas governor Ann Richards. But he also is trying to make up ground among men by playing up his proposal for a tax credit for low- and middle-income Virginia households, based on what they pay for the vehicle tax.

Beyer also is putting out tough-sounding ads blasting Gilmore's environmental policies and emphasizing his own background as a businessman with two car dealerships. And with Gilmore accusing him of being soft on crime, Beyer is emphasizing his endorsement by the state's Fraternal Order of Police.

But both campaigns say that a key to victory in the Nov. 4 election is tapping the increasing influence of women -- particularly in voter-rich Northern Virginia, which has more professional and single women than other areas of the state.

"Gilmore can win the election among men on the strength of his tax-cut plan," said Dick Leggitt, a consultant for Gilmore. In the campaign's last four weeks, he said, "the battle is going to be over women, and especially Northern Virginia women."

Susan Platt, Beyer's campaign manager, agreed. In the next month, Beyer's campaign will largely target single and working women and will hammer at Gilmore's opposition to abortion after 12 weeks, including cases of rape or incest.

"Jim Gilmore's given us a very large menu of things that show him to be badly out of touch with women," said Geoff Garin, a pollster for Beyer.

Surveys have indicated that women are far more likely than men to base their voting decisions on women's rights issues and social "safety net" matters affecting children. Platforms that focused on schools, day care, health care and the environment helped elect scores of Democrats across the nation last year, and the approach is now being reprised in Virginia.

But in this case, the split between sexes seems as much a reflection of the candidates as their campaigns.

Beyer, Virginia's two-term lieutenant governor, frequently invokes the influence of strong women on his life, from the grandmother who attended the University of California at Berkeley, became a professor and fought segregation in Arlington, to his wife, Megan, a former television journalist.

The 47-year-old Democrat's campaign staff is dominated by women, starting with Platt, spokeswoman Page Boinest, her deputy, and directors of Beyer's finance and field operations. Although Beyer's pollster and paid consultants are men, his state office has had a similar breakdown, with top jobs held by women.

Gilmore, 47, a former state attorney general, has a team that is the polar opposite of Beyer's, with a face and voice that is overwhelmingly male. From campaign manager M. Boyd Marcus to spokesman Mark A. Miner and his deputies to Gilmore's finance and field directors, the campaign is led by men.

"It is clear from the issues that Beyer is stressing and his party's style that he is more successful in his appeal to women in Virginia than Gilmore, and vice versa among men," said Scott Keeter, director of the Commonwealth Poll in Richmond. "We see a big gender gap at this point, but I don't think we've seen the full measure of it yet."

Three statewide surveys since August peg Beyer's lead among women at 7 to 10 percentage points, with Gilmore leading among men by 11 to 21 percentage points. A Washington Post survey two weeks ago found that the gender gap persisted, though with slightly smaller margins. All polls indicated that more women than men were undecided.

With the race close overall, both sides are trying to pull women their way while not losing support among men.

At a recent luncheon in Richmond with 300 women, Gilmore, a former Richmond area prosecutor, appeared with his wife to testify about his empathy for working women and his work on behalf of victims of domestic violence.

"I appreciate Jim's support of my career over the years," said Roxane Gilmore, a classics professor and former public school teacher.

On television in September, James Gilmore saturated Virginia's urban areas with ads promoting his plan to hire more teachers. He also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on 10- and 30-second character endorsements from Sen. John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican with the highest approval ratings among women.

Beyer, meanwhile, has put out television ads pushing higher teacher salaries, smaller class sizes and literacy programs. He also is casting Gilmore's support for using public funds to send some children to private schools as a plan that would undermine public schools.

"Here's why this election is important," Beyer told an audience of 1,200 at a recent Women for Beyer luncheon in Arlington, where Richards was the featured speaker. "We want 4-year-olds living in poverty to be at preschool with somebody reading to them, rather than lingering in a housing project all day alone. We want 15-year-old girls working on their PSATs, not working on having a second baby."

Beyer pledged to lower teenage smoking rates and use new federal funds to provide health insurance to low-income children. He said his education policies would train future workers and keep dropouts out of jail.

Late last month, the campaigns had their first exchanges on a subject that voters will be hearing more and more about in the campaign's closing weeks: abortion. Democrats believe Beyer's support for abortion rights will be a key to winning the votes of many women.

Beyer is against further restricting Virginia's new law requiring that parents be notified before their minor daughters have abortions, and he is touting the endorsement of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Gilmore says he would support a law requiring that parents give their permission -- not just be notified -- before their daughter could have an abortion. In doing so, analysts say, he is trying to turn his stand on abortion into an issue of parents' rights, not just women's rights.

Peggy C. Anderson, 51, of Falls Church, said that although she likes Gilmore's tax-cut plan, she will vote for Beyer because of his stands on abortion rights and education.

"Although I used to be a Republican and pretty active in Fairfax County, I really can't go along with some of their [social] agenda," Anderson said. "They've really gone too far conservative for me."

But if Brenda L. Hylton is any indication, Gilmore's tax plan may be enough to win over some women.

"I just like the tax issue," said Hylton, 28, of rural Dry Fork, Va., a sewing machine worker whose family includes two children and five stepchildren. "We have [four] vehicles. At the end of the year, I get . . . all the personal property tax bills in the mail."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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