CHICAGO -- Carol Moseley Braun stood before a large audience of supporters here the other night and recounted how she is always being asked the same question: "How does it feel to be an African-American and a woman running for the Senate?" Her reply, she said with a broad grin, is: "Hey, I'm a package!"
The lighthearted remark generated laughter and applause, but the question did underscore why the Cook County recorder of deeds has become the celebrity candidate in this touted "Year of the Woman" in American politics.
The year, which started with the highest of hopes for women, still looks promising, although perhaps not to the degree anticipated by those who looked to 1992 as the time of a political revolution. Many female candidates fell by the wayside in the primaries, and some of the survivors are encountering problems in the general election -- even Ms. Braun herself.
As potentially the first black woman elected to the Senate, she has been cast in a sense as the star player in a political drama that could be called "The Revenge of Anita Hill." Just a year ago, another black woman, law professor Anita Hill, got short shrift from an all-male, all-white Senate panel airing her allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Ms. Braun, at the urging of women's groups, entered the Senate Democratic primary as a long shot against incumbent Sen. Alan J. Dixon, who had voted to confirm Mr. Thomas. She squeaked through when another challenger, wealthy lawyer Al Hofeld, spent nearly $5 million against Mr. Dixon and the two men got bloodied in the fight.
Since then, Ms. Braun has been the toast of the political circuit from New York to Hollywood, raising money and women's political hopes, and being placed on a pedestal as a candidate about to make history. In the last two weeks, however, that pedestal has begun to shake in the wake of a disclosure of a financial dealing that has generated charges of abuse by her of the Illinois welfare system.
Ms. Braun's 78-year-old mother, living in a nursing home on Medicaid funds, received a $28,750 inheritance three years ago that Ms. Braun deposited in her own bank account and later distributed among herself, a brother and sister. That was in accordance, she says, with written instructions from her mother as repayment for funds they had spent for her care. The problem is that state law requires that a Medicaid recipient report any such funds to the state for a determination whether the funds should go to the state to defray the costs of the recipient's care. They were not so reported.
While the allegations have affected markedly a 28-percentage-point lead Ms. Braun held over Republican Rich Williamson in a Chicago Tribune poll before the revelation, she still leads by 17 points and remains favored to win.
Women of both parties have flocked to her candidacy, along with fellow blacks -- who have boosted registration numbers -- and many Democrats "coming home" to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton after 12 years of flirtation with the GOP under Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
But race has been a cutting issue for years in Illinois politics. Braun strategists fear that racial stereotypes of welfare cheating may drive off her support among many white male voters and Republican women, some of whom may welcome an issue to justify to themselves a vote against a woman on the verge of making history.
A defeat for Carol Moseley Braun would take some luster from "The Year of the Woman" -- a year that has brought unprecedented successes to women's political groups, but also some disappointments, even before Election Day.
Record numbers of women ran in primaries for Congress and state legislatures this year, and record numbers survived -- 11 female nominees for the Senate, up from eight two years ago, and 108 for House seats, up from 70 in 1990.
In races for governor, three women have made it into the general election: Democrats Dorothy Bradley in Montana and Arnie Arneson in New Hampshire, and Republican Elizabeth Ann Leonard in Rhode Island. If all were elected, they would double the number of female governors serving now to a record six, joining Democrats Joan Kinney in Kansas, Barbara Roberts in Oregon and Ann Richards in Texas.
At the same time, however, of 29 women who sought senatorial nominations in this year's primaries, 18 lost. Among the casualties were 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro and former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, both defeated by Robert Abrams for the Democratic senatorial nomination in New York.
Of the remaining 11 -- 10 Democrats and one Republican -- five are ahead in polls in their states, including incumbent Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. Six trail, most of them by large margins.
After a debate the other night, one of the six, Democrat Lynn Yeakel in Pennsylvania, has moved up close behind incumbent Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (41 percent to 39 percent) in the latest Millersville-Penn State poll.
The most prominent likely winners are the two Democratic nominees in California, former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Barbara Boxer. In the California Poll by Mervin Field, Ms. Feinstein leads incumbent Republican Sen. John Seymour by 57 percent to 37 percent. Ms. Boxer leads television commentator Bruce Herschensohn by 55 percent to 33 percent.
The other woman ahead in her Senate race, in addition to Ms. Braun and Ms. Mikulski, is state Sen. Patty Murray, the surprise Democratic primary winner in Washington as the "mom in tennis shoes." She leads the Republican candidate, Rep. Rod Chandler, by 54 percent to 35 percent in a poll for the Bellevue Journal American and radio station KOMO.
In Pennsylvania, Ms. Yeakel has made up ground after having fallen well behind Mr. Specter, a particular villain in the eyes of many women's political groups for his harsh treatment of Ms. Hill in the Thomas confirmation hearings before 14 white men just a year ago.
Ms. Yeakel made a target of Mr. Specter in her successful primary race, but the incumbent, with the help of heavy television advertising and expressed regrets for his treatment of Ms. Hill, moved to a 16-point lead until the recent debate. Women's groups, which have given Ms. Yeakel strong financial support, hope that her resumed television advertising will yet make her a winner.
The five other women candidates now trailing, by 18 points or more in local polls, are all challenging incumbents. They are Democrats Claire Sargent in Arizona, Jean Lloyd-Jones in Iowa, Gloria O'Dell in Kansas and Geri Rothman-Serot in Missouri, and Republican Charlene Haar in South Dakota.
If the current polling numbers hold up in all 11 Senate races contested by women, the result would be a net gain of only four women in the Senate. That, however, is like saying the glass is half empty instead of half full, as leaders of women's political groups would put it.
Four new female senators would triple the present elected contingent, made up of Ms. Mikulski and Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas. (A third woman, Sen. Jocelyn Burdick of North Dakota, is serving out the unexpired term of her deceased husband, Quentin N. Burdick, until a special election in December, but she is not a candidate.)
Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund, says of the prospect of five female winners in Senate races on Nov. 3: "Everyone would consider that a huge victory. If you go back to pre-Anita Hill days, six [the five winners plus Ms. Kassebaum] would be beyond our wildest dreams."
The figure looks more impressive considering that besides Ms. Mikulski -- the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right -- and Ms. Kassebaum, only two other women of the 15 who have served or are serving in the Senate, according to Ms. Danowitz, were actually elected: Republicans Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Paula Hawkins of Florida. The others took interim appointments upon the deaths of their husbands.
Whatever the outcome on Nov. 3, women seem certain to have a stronger voice in the next Congress. The crop of 108 female House nominees, 38 of them running in new or open districts, is expected to mean a notable increase over the current figure of 27 incumbent congresswomen seeking re-election.
The motto that female political activists have been wearing on T-shirts for years ("A Woman's Place is in the House -- and Senate") may at last have real relevance.