IN THE END, Ronald Reagan might not get the girl, a prospect so disturbing that his White House image-makers are rewriting his script.
In recent weeks, they have:
* Gone public on the gender gap, acknowledging that it could defeat the Republicans' leading man and damage the Republican Party;
* Reorganized their outreach program to women voters by adding The Working Group on Women and placing Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver in charge of it;
* Solicited GOP congresswomen for advice on key legislation of concern to women and introduced a bill on child-support enforcement.
* Sent the Gipper himself into one huddle with the women lawmakers to cheer the team on.
A month ago chief presidential political adviser Edward J. Rollins told a group of Republican women at a midwestern leadership training forum that victory in 1984, and what some see as the very survival of the Republican party, depended upon closing something called the "gender gap."
It caused a stir among some of the midwesterners in the crowd who were unfamiliar with the term. Coming straight from the male-oriented White House, the public recognition of a gender gap was the first substantive indication that the president's men were launching a political strategy aimed at women.
There was some speculation by skeptical women leaders that Rollins' tongue had slipped, as it has been known to do. In fact, the speech had been carefully prepared with guidance from the White House. There was also speculation on Capitol Hill; some GOP congresswomen saw the speech as a signal that a long-awaited legislative package of concern to women was about to be drafted.
Then word leaked from the White House that Faith Ryan Whittlesey, the president's assistant for public liaison to such special interest groups as farmers, business, blacks, Jews and women, had been stripped of her responsibility to improve Reagan's relations with women.
Known for his finely tuned political antennae but not for his feminist leanings, Deaver appointed the administration's two women Cabinet officers, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole and Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, to his new working group.
On June 28, four months after they met with Reagan and told him what they thought his legislative priorities for women should be, a half-dozen Republican congresswomen were invited back to the White House to sit down with Deaver and talk things over.
"We told him we didn't want any part of it if it was going to be window dressing. Enough is enough," said Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.). "I made the point that when we're dealing with this gender gap issue, there are two ways of looking at it--superficially through a public relations campaign or substantively through legislation.
"I think the White House recognizes that we've lost some time and that we female members of congress are extremely restless," she said.
Pat Reuss, legislative director of the Women's Equity Action League, put it another way: "Twenty-nine months into the administration, they finally realized they had some Republican women who are literally having to carry the water for that man."
Deaver's assurances that he personally would meet regularly with the congresswomen left Schneider cautiously optimistic. But publicly Deaver was less forthcoming on his new role, and his office said he would have "no comment" on it or women's issues in general.
And White House spokesman Larry Speakes, after the relentless anti-Reagan sentiments expressed in San Antonio at the National Women's Political Caucus meeting, said simply: "I don't have any specific response."
FOR A "great communicator," Ronald Reagan's communications with the women who support him have been more notable for their gaps. Recent ones involve the appointment of Whittlesey, who has never been a supporter of the as his chief liaison with women; another, the prolongengling of the GOP congressional women's caucus.
The child support enforcement issue (there are currently fiect before Congress) is a good case study of what the women are going through to shake the movers.
It is anroups consider critical. Judy Goldsmith, president of the National Organization for Women, said, "After divorces up 42 percent and women's goes down 73 percent. One of the major reasons is that the majority of men do not make child support payments. er for them to ignore that than to ignore their rent."
On June 27, just 11 days after Rep. Margaret S. Roukduced her bill on the subject, the administration's bill, shepherded by Secretary Heckler, was sent to the Speody bothered to alert the GOP women's caucus. "It came as a surprise," said Schneider. The bill languished wit Roukema let the White House know what she would do: "I made it clear to them that I could not sign on to thaweeks later, Roukema with five GOP colleagues from the House and Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) sat down again with Deaver. The White House lineup was impressive. Among those brought in for tion this time, in addition to Heckler and Dole, were Vice President Bush, Chief of Staff James Baker III, PresEdwin Meese III, Whittlesey and the White House legislative staff.
Meese questioned the congresswomen on pee main thrust of the discussion was child support enforcement, scheduled to be considered by a House panel ther told her former Hill colleagues that she had inherited the administration's bill from her predecessor and hawith it either.
"There had to be two fundamental improvements in it before any of the congresswomen could tt," Roukema said.
One concerned improving the financing formula, which even then would be below the currentr eliminating the distinctions that were being made between welfare and non-welfare families. When the White Hresswomen reached an impasse, Ronald Reagan put in an unscheduled appearance in the Roosevelt Room to settle tr.
"The president heard me out," said Roukema. "He said he agreed with me that there should be no distinctishould be altered."
"He gave his okay, I think, partly because we were all united," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.).
When Heckler presented the bill the next day, the two changes were included. Among the cosponsors, though still favoring her own bill, was Roukema.
"IT'S NEVER been easy being the only woman in an all-male White House," Faith Whittlesey s month, feeling that she needed one, she brought in her own press secretary.
"It's not easy when my mother at some of these stories that have been planted by my colleagues here at the White House. It's not pleasant,"t really hasn't altered my commitment to the president at all. He's supportive and his reaction was, just don't nonsense. Just go on, Faith, and do your job."
The one question that nagged the congresswomen throughout s: Was anyone at the White House really in charge of women's issues?
In their talk with Reagan in March abonomic Equity Act and the Equal Rights Amendment, he had seemed "upbeat," according to Schneider, but had givent.
"He was difficult to read," Schneider remembered.
They talked to Baker and Meese in that same meetingficult to read, Schneider thought. Both took detailed notes of the discussion. Deaver was not present. Schneidthe meeting with the impression that things would move quickly.
Months went by and frustration set in.
Shink they all figured they'd let Faith Whittlesey carry the ball on this because they were dealing with other things."
Whittlesey, on the other hand, said she had been ill so could nt attend the March meeting. And because Jim Baker told her it wasn't necessary, she said in a recent interview up the meeting with the congresswomen.
"In fact, I've been told to be very careful of that and not to init members of Congress. It's inappropriate for me even to talk to them," she said. "They are very conscious of tve discovered it's legislative affairs aide Ken Duberstein's responsibility to respond to the wishes of the congress. Not mine."
Her responsibility, she said, is to deal with "500 or more" special interest groups, iial policies for them and listening to their concerns about policy but not formulating them. "My office is not"
Contrary to what some women's groups had expected of Elizabeth Dole's successor, Whittlesey had only a general impression of her liaison work. She said shever received any specific instructions about her duties as Reagan's go-between with women, including the womens, when Baker and Deaver had called her one day in Switzerland where she was U.S. Ambassador. They offered herand gave her 20 minutes to make up her mind.
Some women's organizations soon found Whittlesey's remarks abond its goals imprudent, her positions on the issues unacceptable, her knowledge of the system shallow and her operating style naive.
Recently, when a group orominent women gathered at Andrews Air Force base for a trip to Florida to see the space shuttle launch with sey and another women's liaison, Dee Jepsen, were criticized by fellow travelers for not mingling with the othey's priorities have been criticized, too.
National Organization for Women President Goldsmith said she has up an appointment with Whittlesey because "the public statements she was making indicated there was little communication that could occur. We're so far at oppoe ends of the pole."
"I think that Elizabeth Dole moved the agenda while she was there," said Kathy Wilson,chair of the National Women's Political Caucus. "Child care emphasis clearly came out of Dole's shop, with a lper." (Harper has announced he is leaving the White House at the end of the month.)
Any hopes that Whittlesirect line to Reagan were dashed early when Wilson and several others went to see her about administration appointments.in my area either," said Whittlesey, "but I said if they had qualified women interested in serving this administration I'd be happy to serve as a conduit for those re'sume's and pathem along."
The question was, what constituted "qualified"?
"They don't have a whole lot of women in th can trust or manipulate," said Reuss. "Even though we can all name wonderful Republican women in the private things, they maybe are not card-carrying feminists but they are certainly women who are independent and don'trs."
She said praise of the president's more visible appointments of women have to be qualified, too.
"Even those women are hamstrung by the advisers aroudent who have real blinders on when it comes to the problems facing women in today's society," said Reuss.
round inside the White House as well. After one Cabinet meeting at which she was present, reports circulated te was no such thing as a gender gap, while Dole and Heckler, a victim of it last fall in her re-election bid, elines. Whittlesey, however, denies she ever said that.
"I said in two private meetings--and this was all leaked then by other people in the White House who heasons or wanted to make difficulties--that basically, yes, there is a gender gap," she said. "But I said I think we have to look carefully at the causes for it and then make sure what we suggest as a cure for it is consistent with the president's agenda."
When published accounts in early June seemed to indicate that her responsibilities with women had been taken away, there were two theories.
One was that she deserved it, that she had alienated the very constituency she supposedly had been hired to represent.
The other theory was that she was Washington's newest scapegoat.
"That she was demoted because of that gender gap comment, I think, is an indication that she was basically a fall guy," said Wilson, who has heard both theories and approaches the idea about a demotion with ambivalence.
"That's essentially what the White House posibeen on the gender gap all along. I think you could argue that she was simply reiterating, if it hadn't been vy, the White House attitude. And also I think you could argue that her demotion was in some way sexist. They homeone to lash out at over there."
Whittlesey acknowledged that the scapegoat idea also had occurred to herhave to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going. "I've been in a man's world before. This is not nedon't like it because it's men who have done this to me."
"I DON'T think either party can claim women as acy," said Kathy Wilson. "Right now women's approval rating for the president is 10 to 12 points below men . . . If the gender gap holds and the blacks mobilize the way we know they can, Reagan couldn't win if he got every white male vote in the countThat is the fear motivating White House advisers, but they have remained silent about the changes they are makan's script or their efforts to turn the women's political tide that is expected to make the biggest waves in White House recognize the value of courting women with a constituency, but they stop short of including the feained Whittlesey, "To say they are the arbiters of opinion in general of women is really an inaccurate reading of the American woman."
In line with their new effort to be visible with women, guests at the Reagans' state dinner or the emir of Bahrain Tuesday night included astronaut Sally Ride; Christian Science Monitor Editor Katherineabel Eberstadt; RNC co-chair Betty Heitman; Eunice Cole, president of the American Nurses Association; Barbara Smith, president of the Mormon Women's Relief Society, and Berta White, president of American Farm Bureau Fedn's Activities.
James Baker this week said the gender gap has the "highest priority." The working group heapparently intended to the give the issue a greater emphasis.
"There was a recognition that much of what the it had accomplished just wasn't getting much play. Even though they intended to do more, they had to be more said Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.).
"Part of the problem," said the Women's Equity Action League's Reuss, "is solutions are embodied in the bipartisan economic equity act (which includes yet another Child Care Enforcemenministration can't take credit for."
Which is where Deaver comes in.
"Mr. Deaver is an action-oriented gJohnson (R-Conn.). "My evaluation of him is he comes in, sits down, says, 'Look, we're going to have four meet're going to have a package.' That suits me just fine. That's the way I operate. I guess they felt that Mr. Deaver was best at working sessions."
"Mike is close to the president and couldsupport for these issues and decisions from within," said Rep. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). "We know whom we can talk to now because he is the one essentially in charge."
"The fact t Deaver is one of the Big Four around the president signals the elevation in importance of these women's issues," according to Whittlesey, who says she considers all in that inner le her allies.
From the outside, the formation of The Working Group on Women and the inclusion in it of Dole and Heckler is viewed favorably. But Deaver as its chair "practically guarantees inaccessibility," said NWPC's Wilson.re's not a soul who doesn't see right through any of it," said WEAL's Reuss, to whom the emerging new White House scenario on women and mino Band-Aid solution" at best.-chair of the Republican National Committee: "We're working very hard to supplyWhi35 currently includes nine women in the top 16 positions, six of whom include being liaisons with women in theesponsibilities. The most visible--and controversial--is Dee Jepsen, wife of Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa), who wasiaison to women until Whittlesey took over. Her conservative views have earned her few followers among mainstream groups.
"I don't think you appoint a cipher to solve your potentially moslem with the electorate," said Wilson. "The only thing Jepsen ever did at meetings I attended was take notes, t she was the secretary at the meeting. She never asked any thoughtful questions, never seemed to be particula the issue was we were discussing. It seemed to be an irritation to the White House people."
Whittlesey saitrates on more conservative women's groups and on agriculture and religion, examples of what she calls "non-trnments she has given women in her office.
Joining the staff recently was Trudi Morrison, a black attorney fs in charge of the controversial 50 states project to identify discriminatory laws in each of the states. Alredy Buckalew, a registered nurse in charge of women in environment, educational, disabled, the aging and healthy Jo Jacobi, business and trade and women in the work force; and Katalina Villalpando, Hispanics and women. WhAdis Vila deals with women and youth in general.
Accelerated efforts to close the gender gap aren't being left entirethe White House. Said Betty Heitman, co-chair of the Republican National Committee: "We're working very hard th information on the Reagan record to counter the very partisan rhetoric which is added to our perception probon to telling their side of the story, Heitman said, the Republicans are recruiting "thousands of women candidlying the women's vote with "It's a man's world unless women vote," will be a bipartisan coalition of 38 organting 15 million people.
Whittlesey is skeptical. "The idea of women being a bloc of votes that is bought an the highest bidder, that is repugnant to me," she said.
But, as Kathy Wilson put it, "The gender gap is out there waiting to be handled with tender loving care."