White House officials have concluded that the "gender gap" is largely a Republican problem, not President Reagan's problem, and that it would damage any Republican running for president.
Polls show that Reagan's support runs about 17 percentage points higher among men than among women. But officials assessing the problem say that only about 3 percent of the gap is attributable to the president's policies.
The remainder, they contend, is attributable to intransigent opposition to all Republican candidates from Jewish women, black women and feminists. They also point out that a higher proportion of men than women are registered Republicans.
"If Ronald Reagan was a woman and a liberal running as a Republican, he couldn't get the Jewish, the black and radical women," a senior White House adviser said. "That's the party's gender gap."
"I call it the Bella Abzug agenda," said another White House official, referring to the liberal former member of Congress from New York.
"These women are talking ERA Equal Rights Amendment , but they are really committed to more social spending, cutting defense spending, making concessions to the Soviets in the arms talks. It's exactly contrary to the Reagan philosophy. It's contrary to the Republican philosophy. It's the liberal agenda," the official said.
According to the administration officials, the 3 percent gender gap is limited to two groups:
Women between ages 25 and 40 who are often single mothers or career women and say they feel that Reagan does not have their interests at heart, in part because of his opposition to the ERA but also because of his image as unfair and representing the rich.
Women over 55 who feel threatened by past Reagan proposals to cut Social Security programs.
Administration officials feel that both groups can be recaptured for the president.
The key to attracting the votes of younger women, they said, will be to emphasize gains made by Reagan in cutting inflation and achieving a start towards economic recovery. Speaking to West Coast Republican Party chairmen recently, the president said he plans to ask voters if double-digit inflation is evidence of "fairness" to women and the poor.
The key to bringing over-55 women back to the Reagan camp, one White House official said, will be to emphasize that Reagan is "a natural" for them because he "stands for prayer, he is against abortion, he believes in families and strong neighborhoods, just like them."
"The rest of the gender gap is a long-term problem for the party, not for this White House or this candidate," an administration official said.
Republican Party officials tend to agree.
"The major women's organizations like NOW National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus have endorsed a liberal Democratic agenda," said Betty Heitman, co-chairman of the Republican National Committee.
"They are against all Republicans. They want to go back 40 years to the bankrupt ideas that have failed before. I think that is their real objective. We have some excellent Republican candidates that they did not support.
"Look at Millicent Fenwick, Peggy Heckler, Nancy Johnson--women who are all feminists and who were all rejected by the so-called women's groups. In that sense, the problem does go beyond President Reagan," she said.
Kathy Wilson, president of the caucus and a Republican, angrily denied that her group, which has a bipartisan board, is opposed to all Republicans.
"The White House can't say we don't support women who are Republicans," Wilson said. "We supported Maureen Reagan. We gave her $3,000 when she was running for the senate. He Reagan said he hoped she wouldn't run.
"We are supporting a Republican man in Alexandria for state senate over a Democrat who is a woman . . . . The BPW Business and Professional Women's Clubs Inc. has a large number of Republicans in it. The AAUW American Association of University Women has many Republicans and they are making the same criticisms of the president . . . .
"But they the White House would rather discredit the people who voice criticism. They select what they want to hear. It's a stubborn refusal to grapple with the problem. Their trouble with women is much larger than they believe, and they are foolish to think they can massage the numbers and come up with some magical recourse," Wilson said.
Ann Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee, said she agrees that most Republican candidates are "burdened with the gender gap" but because Reagan "has dug a moat around the party and dragged all the other Republican candidates into it."
Lewis called the White House strategy of appealing to the two age groups of women "futile."
"Black women do vote," she said. "Jewish women do vote. Feminists' votes count at the ballot box, too."
Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf disagrees that the party, as distinct from the president, is suffering from the gender gap. He said it is difficult to "separate the two."
Fahrenkopf pointed to a recent special election in Rhode Island where Republicans tripled their number of state legislators. Among nine of the new women elected were eight Republicans.
"If you get away from a few personalities, particularly the president's, and get to the general population, this party has no problem with a gender gap," he said.