At a rally designed to energize female voters and highlight his support for their issues, Vice President Gore yesterday hit a personal note, invoking his role as a son, husband and father, while also drawing the endorsement of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"Al Gore has been out front for women, for children, for families throughout his life," Clinton said, drawing cheers from hundreds of women crowded into a Mayflower Hotel ballroom. "And now it's time to be out front for him. He is my choice and I hope your choice for the next president of the United States."
The event marked the start -- at least the visible one -- of the battle for the hearts and souls of female voters, who make up a larger portion of the electorate than men. Gore will officially announce his campaign on June 16 in Carthage, Tenn., his home town, his campaign said yesterday.
Gore's only Democratic opponent, former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.), kicks off his Women for Bradley Network with an event chaired by his wife, Ernestine, in Manhattan this morning. It will feature former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist and novelist Anna Quindlen, who will announce her endorsement of Bradley. The event is expected to raise about $150,000 from tickets that range from $100 to $1,000.
The battle for female voters is certain to be intense. The disproportionate support among women for Democrats was crucial to President Clinton's reelection in 1996. But many Republicans believe at least two of their candidates, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole, could close the gender gap that has bedeviled the GOP.
A poll conducted in early May by the nonpartisan Research 2000 showed Gore in a dead heat with Bush among women and down 12 points against Dole among women. Gore trailed Bush 52 percent to 42 percent in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in late May.
Gore campaign officials said polls matter little this early, adding that voters -- female and male -- know little of his record and background even though he has been vice president for seven years. So Gore is talking more not only about his record but also about his personal life.
Much as he did last month in a speech before the NAACP in Detroit in which he invoked the civil rights legacy of his father, former senator Albert Gore Sr., the vice president, speaking to a mostly female audience, opened his speech yesterday by invoking the name of his mother, Pauline, and describing her as a major inspiration in his life.
Pauline Gore grew up in a poor family in rural northwest Tennessee and later worked her way through college, taking "her blind sister, Thelma, with her -- taking notes and reading lessons for the both of them," Gore said. She later graduated from Vanderbilt law school -- while living at the YWCA and working as a waitress for 25-cent tips -- and became the only female attorney in Texarkana, Ark., and one of only a handful in the state.
Surrounded by the first lady, his wife, Tipper, and dozens of elected officials and female leaders who have endorsed him, Gore reeled off his support for abortion rights, equality in pay, women's health issues, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. And he said as president he would push to make preschool available to every child and reduce class sizes.
"For me, women's rights are about my mother's example, my wife's inspiration, my daughters' brightest hopes," he said. "I want to create a 21st century in which my three daughters have every opportunity that my son will have."
There has been much speculation about whether the vice president's campaign would be hurt by a Senate bid in New York by the first lady. Suggesting that the Gores would be delighted if Hillary ran, Tipper Gore said: "I wish I had a chance this morning to endorse someone for some other race." Hillary Clinton, standing nearby, simply smiled broadly.
Gore's deputy campaign chairman, Marla Romash, said that as people begin paying more attention and Republicans outline their positions, Gore's numbers will improve. "I think when American women understand where the vice president has been on issues such as school safety, like choice, and understand where every other candidate has been on those issues, they will vote for the vice president," she said.
Del Ali, who runs Research 2000, agreed that it is too early to read much into Gore's poll numbers. He warned, however, that the numbers suggest some GOP candidates might be able to make inroads among women unless "they are seen as reaching out to the Patrick Buchanan or Gary Bauer wing of the party." He said voters know little about either Dole or Bush but have perceived generally that they are moderate.
In the Democratic primaries, Gore will be formidable, especially among women, because he has been part of an administration that is viewed as supportive of women's issues, party officials said.
Bradley campaign officials yesterday touted his record in the Senate, where he helped push through laws strengthening child support enforcement and requiring insurance companies to end the practice of "drive-by deliveries" -- rushing women out of hospitals after birth.
Yet Bradley's spokesman, Eric Hauser, declined to elaborate on specific issues Bradley would advocate as president. "The perspective we come at this with is that women and the other gender think leadership is an important issue," Hauser said.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Tipper Gore offers her endorsement of the vice president's candidacy in the Mayflower Hotel ballroom.