Judy Rodino is the Kerry campaign's worst nightmare.
She is 66, forced to retire because of cancer and living on Social Security in New Jersey. She believes the Democratic presidential nominee would be far better for the quality of her life as an ailing senior citizen.
Yet, even for this lifelong Democrat, John F. Kerry has yet to close the deal.
"I think Bush is much more knowledgeable on how to handle a war -- he's done it, he's weathered terrorism," said Rodino in a telephone interview from her home. "I just don't think Kerry is aware of the foreign programs. And Kerry just isn't assertive. . . . I am still watching and reading. I'm just not there yet. I am very anxious for the debates."
A series of polls and indicators in the past month have showed that the once comfortable double-digit lead Kerry had among female voters -- a historical and mandatory pocket of support for Democratic presidential candidates -- has eroded.
Most troubling for Democrats is that a majority of the women polled say that they believe Kerry would do better for pocketbook issues -- an indicator that usually drives the female vote -- yet they favor Bush because they consider him a stronger leader and better equipped to handle the terrorist threat. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 19 percent more women say Kerry would improve the job outlook -- but 21 percent also say Bush would do a better job defending against terrorism.
"It is a problem that these women do not feel the Democrats are focused on security," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, whose most recent bipartisan Battleground 2004 poll shows Kerry leading Bush among women by four percentage points. The same poll showed Kerry in June with a 10-point lead among women. In addition, there is a much wider gap this year between the single and the married female voter, with single women favoring Kerry, and married women and mothers moving to Bush. " 'The security moms,' if you will, are part of agenda-setting here," Lake said.
Kerry campaign officials insist the race is fluid, but they acknowledge that Kerry must work to reassure female voters that he is well able to deal with terrorism and the war in Iraq, while staying focused on the economic issues that have traditionally driven their support.
"In all truth, I think the standoff in Russia was frightening for women, with images of schoolchildren taken hostage," Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill said. "The president has keyed into that and is definitely playing that up. . . . We are doing a lot in the next few weeks to talk directly to women who we feel are open to John Kerry's message."
This week, Kerry presented a detailed outline of what he would do in Iraq. He appeared on "Live With Regis and Kelly," a television program with a format that plays to women. Today, in Davenport, Iowa, mothers and wives of servicemen will be featured at an all-woman event with Edwards subbing for a sick Kerry to talk about the effect Bush administration policies have had on their families -- one of about 30 such events these women will do in the next week in battleground states. The campaign also is highlighting a group of Sept. 11 widows who have endorsed Kerry and who are willing speak out against Bush.
"The bottom line is that John Kerry is still winning with women," said Kerry pollster Mark S. Mellman. Mellman and Cahill said that with 20 percent of the electorate still undecided or swing voters, women "break late" in their choices. "We're confident the undecideds will break our way because of the outreach John Kerry is doing," Mellman said.
Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said that "Kerry has to get women back, and he has to get them in a sizable majority."
"If he loses among women, he will lose this election," she said. "It's as simple as that."
In the 2000 presidential cliffhanger, Al Gore had an 11-point edge over Bush among women; Bush carried men by 11 points.
The Battleground 2004 poll mirrors other surveys, including a Washington Post-ABC poll that shows Kerry's lead among women shrinking, while Bush is running as strong as ever among men.
"I think women are the most interesting segment of this electorate, and they will play a pivotal role," said Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew poll. "They are cross-pressured: They worry more about national security than men, and they see Bush as stronger on that count. But they are also discontent with how Bush has handled economic issues, and they lean toward Kerry in that regard."
At an Edwards rally in Florida yesterday, Bobbie Haynes, 66, said she was drawn to the Democratic ticket because of domestic issues -- jobs, the economy. She described the Republican focus on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war on terrorism as "scare tactics."
Democrats privately say the Bush campaign has been effective in addressing women's concerns about security and in general targeting a variety of socioeconomic female demographic groups. In addition, first lady Laura Bush is very popular among women, as is Bush's mother, Barbara, while Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is more controversial.
Still, the dominating issue is national security. "I do worry about safety," said Jeanne McAleer, 42, a mother of three in the Dayton, Ohio, area. "I feel like Bush would make the decisions necessary and spend the money to keep us safe. A possible terrorist attack scares the heck out of me. I'd rather do without and have this taken care of."
McAleer, who considers herself Republican but has voted Democratic, said there is a small chance she could support Kerry but said she is not comfortable with him. She said she believed what she heard from the GOP -- that the senator has "flip-flopped" on issues.
Responds Mellman: "We do have every reason to believe that when people have a chance to hear Kerry talk in a coherent fashion that they will come away impressed that he is a strong leader and can be a more effective commander in chief."
Staff writer David Snyder and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.