In his stump speech, President Bush plays up the benefits for women of deposing Afghanistan's Taliban by describing mothers who were "whipped or killed, in some cases in the sports stadium," and he singles out obstetricians who have been hurt by what he calls runaway lawsuits.
Bush's strategists say he is trying to reach swing voters by showing how women benefit from his national security and economic policies, and it may be working. A few polls over the past month have shown him narrowing the gender gap that has dogged Republicans since Ronald Reagan's race in 1980. Pollsters said the change is largely because security has become a bigger issue for all voters, making "security moms" one of this election's hot categories and displacing Democrat-friendly issues such as health care and education.
The president made his appeal explicit during a trip to North Carolina on Friday. On his way to a $2,000-a-person reception that raised $1.5 million for the Republican National Committee, he stopped at his first "Focus on Women's Issues" campaign rally at the Charlotte Merchandise Mart, filled with hundreds of "W Stands for Women" signs.
"The society of ours has changed dramatically," Bush said, launching into a riff that is a staple of his speeches. "For example: In the old days, women used to stay at home. Now, they're staying at home and working -- they're inside the house and outside the house. That's a fundamental shift in our labor market."
Bush used that observation, which some opponents mock as anachronistic, to lead into his contention that labor laws should be made more "family-friendly" by giving employees more choices about how to take time off through flextime and compensatory time. Bush's campaign says the plan would be voluntary, but Democratic challenger John F. Kerry calls it a sop to employers because they would be able to schedule workers for more hours in a week by letting them take more time off later, and would not have to pay overtime.
Kerry's campaign issued an analysis asserting that Bush's policies have hurt women on many fronts, including cuts in after-school programs and closing the White House Office on Women's Issues.
The stakes are high because women are slightly more likely to vote than men, and pollsters say that they are more likely to switch allegiances than male voters. A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Bush, who had been running 10 percentage points behind Kerry among women, had moved ahead of him with women in the week after the Republican National Convention. Other polls found the same shift but have shown women edging back to Kerry.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center, said women are "cross-pressured," because security is of growing importance to them, but they are more critical of Bush and more "worried about his judgment" than male voters.
"The way women resolve their conflicting opinions of these two candidates will be the story of this election," Kohut said.
Ann Lewis, national chair of the Women's Vote Center at the Democratic National Committee, said that Republicans have been smart about framing Bush's strength as "keeping your family safe" and that they have shown tactical skill in "putting him in settings in which he seems to be talking with women," despite policies that she said have hurt them. Lewis said Democrats are fighting back with a "Take Five" plan in which women are encouraged to chat with other women about the election in everyday conversations at work or the grocery store.
At the Charlotte event, Bush appeared in a talk-show-style format with four women sitting on stools, who told stories about why they supported his first-term policies or would benefit from his reelection proposals to improve job training, change overtime rules and restrict lawsuits. Repeating a favorite line from his 2000 campaign, he told a working mother that she has the "hardest job in America."
Bush did not refer directly to Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, but said, in another line from his 2000 speeches, "One way to maybe look at this race is you can judge the nature of a fellow by the company he keeps. I'm keeping great company when it comes to Laura Bush. I'm proud of her."
Polls have shown Laura Bush to be much more popular than her husband, and her appearances have been a crucial part of the campaign's strategy. Since last year, she has headlined at least 32 fundraisers, spoken at 15 rallies, and appeared at community colleges, schools and small businesses owned by women, most of them in swing states.
Bush drew applause with one remark tailored to the day. "Some day an American president -- whoever he or she may be -- will be sitting down with a duly elected leader of Iraq."
In a new ad, the Bush campaign criticized what it called Kerry's plan to raise taxes on small businesses. The spot says that "900,000 small-business owners would pay higher tax rates than most multinational corporations."
The Bush camp did not produce an independent study to support that assertion, but spokesmen for Kerry, who wants to raise taxes only on those getting more than $200,000 a year, did not challenge it. They noted a Congressional Budget Office study saying that the president's health plan would raise premiums for many small businesses.
Staff writer Howard Kurtz in Washington contributed to this report.