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HOPING TO LEAP GENDER GAP GOP women to fill convention podium


WASHINGTON -- Almost every woman in, around, close to or in any way connected with the upper reaches of the Bush White House will have her moment on the convention podium in Houston next week, part of the GOP's attempt to prove it's just as female-friendly as the next party.

But this display may do little to close the sizable "gender gap" currently dogging George Bush in the polls. Although such a gap has plagued the Republican Party for at least the last decade, the trend is exacerbated this year by the scores of GOP women breaking ranks with the party over the abortion issue.

While women and men supported Mr. Bush in roughly equal numbers earlier this year, the most recent Gallup Poll shows Democratic nominee Bill Clinton with a 25 percentage-point lead over Mr. Bush among women, compared with a 15-point lead among men.

The numbers were similar at this stage of the game four years ago, according to Gallup surveys, with Mr. Bush trailing Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis by 24 percentage points among women. But as Mr. Bush picked up steam on his way to November 1988, he picked up the women's vote, too, closing out Election Day with a 4-point lead among women.

This time out, in a year touted by Democrats (every chance they get) as the "year of the woman," that vote may prove more elusive to Mr. Bush. Polls in the California Senate races, for instance, in which two Democratic women are up against GOP men, show that three out of 10 Republican women are crossing party lines this year.

Bush adviser Charles Black says the campaign is trying to appeal to women the same way it attempts to draw in men -- through a discussion of the economy, jobs, income security and law and order.

"These are the predominant issues of concern to women," he said, dismissing the abortion issue as "way down" on a list of women's concerns, according to GOP research.

But in the last week, even as the platform committee adopted an extreme anti-abortion plank, the Bush team has appeared to make overtures to the other side. The president alluded to a more moderate personal view, and Barbara Bush all but endorsed abortion rights.

What's more, the campaign has been actively shoving its female heavy-hitters front and center. Its hit man is a woman, Mary Matalin, the deputy campaign manager, and one of the high-profile, prime-time convention speakers is the first lady.

In fact, the GOP has filled the convention roster with women from Congress, from the Cabinet, from federal agencies and from the spouse department, with Marilyn

Quayle and Sally Atwater, wife of the late Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater, on the schedule along with Mrs. Bush.

In another move designed to present an image of a more gender-balanced party, several male delegates to the convention -- including the president's son, Jeb Bush -- have given up their credentials to make room for more female faces.

But some women's leaders and political strategists think these numbers games are irrelevant. Harriet Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, noted that while Mr. Bush had the "best record to date" on appointing women to his administration, "His policies don't reflect women's input, so it makes the women look like tokens."

The president's positions against abortion rights and family leave legislation, for example, "are slapping women in the face," she said. "I don't think anything he can do at the convention will remedy that."

She said that while the GOP was clearly trying to appeal to women with its emphasis on family values, "They're appealing to the wrong women. They're speaking to the most conservative, fundamentalist groups within their party. That's a shrinking base.

"More and more women who once may have been at home are now in the workplace facing a lot of economic realities," Ms. Woods said. "Their votes will go to the candidate who seems to understand their lives."

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