Dole Crafts Strategy to Close Gender Gap
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 1999; Page A1
SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. The first thing people notice about Elizabeth Dole is that she's a she.
It is a distinction this presidential candidate-to-be often highlights. At a recent appearance in this rural Republican community, Dole laced her 45-minute address with tales of womanhood. Like the day in 1970 when, as an aide to President Richard M. Nixon, she tried in vain to get into the Metropolitan Club in downtown Washington for an important business meeting.
" 'Lady,' " Dole remembered the doorman replying, " 'I don't care if your name is Queen Elizabeth; you're not coming in.' "
Today, Dole noted to hearty applause, women can enter that club.
From her appearance (painted nails, high heels and pearl chokers) to her rhetoric ("What does a woman like me have to offer the country?"), Dole is capitalizing on her most obvious asset: She is the only woman in a Republican lineup that currently includes nine men.
With the weight of history upon her as the first truly viable female presidential candidate, Dole is taking a calculated risk. She is attempting to craft a political persona that exploits the advantages of her gender but does not rely solely on that fact to woo voters.
If the strategy succeeds, Dole's supporters believe she could be the first national Republican candidate since the 1970s to put a dent in the huge "gender gap" that has historically cost the GOP crucial elections.
"To Democrats she is terrifying," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother, who has successfully run women's races in the South. "She begins ahead of the pack; when she talks about education or health care she has more credibility than a white guy in a suit."
Yet it is a delicate balancing act; if Dole is to win over the largely conservative base that votes in Republican primaries, she runs the risk of offending the moderate and independent women her aides say give her an edge.
"There is a huge opportunity there for bridging the gender gap," said GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. "Meeting the challenge of that opportunity is kind of tricky. The question is can you make it through the primaries without alienating those swing female voters who may be looking for a reason to vote for you?"
She has been a trailblazer for women -- Harvard Law School, two Cabinet positions, head of the American Red Cross -- yet some professional women scoff at her sweet-as-molasses approach to serious matters.
For every fan of Dole's carefully choreographed, theater-in-the-round-style performances, there are others who complain that the country is not electing a talk show host. And for every voter drawn to Dole's well-articulated views on issues such as education, there are many -- especially during this time of war in Yugoslavia -- who express reservations about putting a woman in the White House.
In a telephone interview last week, Dole played down the role of gender in her possible candidacy. "I'm not running because I'm a woman, and I don't expect people to vote for me because I'm a woman," she said.
Yet in the same conversation, Dole described taking over the "male bastion" at the Transportation Department in 1983 and her efforts to bring more women into the management ranks there. "Trying to help women fulfill their potential has been important to me in all positions of government."
Since Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1980, Republicans have watched their support among women steadily decline. The reasons are myriad, though pollsters attribute much of the gender gap to Democrats' ability to speak credibly on issues women care deeply about.
President Clinton has women to thank for his second term. Exit polls from the 1996 election show Clinton lost the men's vote to Republican nominee Robert J. Dole, Elizabeth Dole's husband, 44 percent to 43 percent. But that margin was easily overtaken by Clinton's 16-point lead among women.
This time around, GOP consultants believe "the other Dole" could turn that gender gap around.
"The impact of a possible Dole presidency on women is profound," said campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer. "Elizabeth Dole talks about it and women respond to it."
Dole's Web site touts a recent Gallup survey that has her outpolling Vice President Gore among women by "a strong 12-point margin." A new survey by independent pollster John Zogby puts Dole's advantage with women at 14 points above Gore, said Dole aide Kathryn Coombs, adding: "Kiss that gender gap goodbye."
But what Dole's advocates failed to mention is that while she is making headway with female voters, her support among men is not nearly as strong as that for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, her strongest rival for the GOP nomination at this point. In the Gallup poll, Dole and Gore were in a dead heat among men, while Bush trounced Gore 61 percent to 36 percent among men.
In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, Dole's strongest supporters were white women in their forties, two-thirds of whom choose Dole over Gore in a hypothetical matchup.
Republicans "have lost support with younger women, professional women, moderates and suburban voters," said Linda DiVall, Dole's pollster. "Those are voters she has a bond with."
That potential was obvious during her paid appearance at Shippensburg University, where women of all ages trilled over the prospect of a President Dole.
Young women called her a role model. "She sends a message we're not limited by gender," as college sophomore Crystal Collier put it after meeting Dole at a private reception here.
Middle-aged women praised her as a trailblazer. "When I was little, I couldn't participate in the punt, pass, kick contest because I was a girl," said Sharon K. Cole. "I couldn't go to Princeton because I was a girl. That's what I love the most about Elizabeth Dole."
And many older women are rooting for the 62-year-old Dole as one of their own. "I'd like to see her succeed," said June Toole, who puts her age around 75. "She's a qualified candidate -- and a woman."
The 45-minute address, in which Dole moved about the stage with her customary clip-on microphone, was a blend of personal reminiscences, career biography and sweeping condemnation of a society riddled with drugs and pornography.
Much of the speech, like her early campaign strategy, focused on what she described as "the biggest change I've witnessed during my career: the role of women." Promoted to Reagan's Cabinet amid complaints of a burgeoning Republican gender gap, Dole's own experiences suggest a harsh, often unfair world for smart, ambitious women.
As one of 24 women in her Harvard Law School class in the 1960s, for example, Dole said male classmates would pointedly ask why she was taking up a precious slot that could be put to better use by a man. Yet her anecdotes are always cast in a rosy hue.
Take the legislative strategy session she held one day early in the Reagan administration. As staff drew up a plan to target individual senators on an upcoming vote, Dole announced that she was slipping out to cook a candlelight dinner. When one aide questioned her early departure, she replied in Scarlet O'Hara tones: " 'Red, you don't seem to understand; tonight I'm targeting Bob Dole.' "
After her speech, a group of students and two professors huddled in a circle to discuss Dole's appearance. Many of the twenty-somethings like the idea of a woman in the Oval Office, but they criticized Dole for delivering a canned speech. And several rolled their eyes at Dole's idealistic yearnings for the days when front doors could be left unlocked.
Thomas Segar, 26, said Dole's notions on America's drug scourge were naive. Steve McTaggart said Dole came off as just another packaged politician, despite her claims to the contrary. "They all seem like robots," he said. "She didn't break a stride."
That heavily scripted style could do her particular damage among women, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "She can't come across as an entirely programmed candidate if she's going to do well, particularly among women who like candidates who reach out to them on a personal level. . . . That may be a real risk for her."
The challenge, say political analysts, is for Dole to capture the benefits of her unique style without creating new liabilities.
That conflict was apparent at the recent Shippensburg appearance, where Dole offered a conflicting message, and one that often seemed to undercut her own achievements. On the one hand, she advocated equal pay for women, who earn 70 cents to every dollar a man makes, but then went on to stress the positive picture for women today. Her personal tales of woe, she reminds, are offered only to illustrate how far society has come with respect to women.
And after a detailed recitation of a resume that includes two Cabinet posts, a seat on the Federal Trade Commission and the Red Cross, the childless Dole made this observation: "I think the most important career a woman can have is that of a mother raising fine young future citizens."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company