PALO ALTO, Calif. -- I don't believe that Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus. But there's enough of a gender gap to make anyone wonder whether men and women inhabit the same political planet.
The respective stars in the party firmaments seem to be beaming their message at one sex or the other. The Democrats are wishing for a rerun of The Year of The Woman, while the Republicans want a sequel to The Year of the Angry White Man.
Last fall the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press reported "extraordinary" differences between how men and women evaluated the issues. The men were more attentive to GOP budget-cutting plans. The women were more concerned about Medicare and education. As the center's Andrew Kohut said, "It was almost as if men and women were choosing sides between financial issues versus caring issues."
Then last month the Wall Street Journal/NBC polls found support for Messrs. Clinton and Dole equally divided among men. But women favored the president 54 percent to 36 percent. Again the men were thinking about cutting government spending, while the women were thinking about social problems.
Now we have the president talking about teen-age pregnancy this week while the furor over Republican candidates in New Hampshire is about taxes -- flat and otherwise.
Maybe the most vivid moment for gap-watchers was the night of the State of the Union address. A careful Mr. Clinton tempered his message that "The era of big government is over" with the caveat "but we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves."
A dour Senator Dole countered with a 10-minute Republican rejoinder using the word "self-reliance" four times. Self-reliance was his all-purpose antidote to the evils of dependence, especially on government.
I have been suspicious of men who extol pure self-reliance ever since I discovered that Henry David Thoreau brought his dirty laundry home from Walden Pond to mom. Now I wonder if it's a girl thing. Or perhaps a Venus thing.
The female ear
"Self-reliance" resonates just a bit differently in the female ear. It often sounds like "fending for yourself." Self-reliance is what you get when your husband walks out the door. It's what you might trade a little of for a good day-care center.
Americans of both sexes share the age-old tension between the values of individualism and community. We pride ourselves on independence and connection. We believe in bootstraps and helping hands. We believe in personal responsibility and mutual responsibility.
But men who are (still) raised to cut the apron strings may balance these values a bit differently from women who are (still) raised to be caretakers. Women are more likely to see government as necessary than as evil, especially for helping the poor, the young, the old.
This may be particularly true for the people that the political astronomers identify as this year's "swing voters" -- a group the Times Mirror Center called the New Economy Independents. Mostly white and female, underemployed and middle-aged, these are high school graduates frustrated with both parties.
These swing voters -- much too zippy a phrase for this struggling population -- were down on Mr. Clinton in 1994 and down on Mr. Gingrich in 1995. And they are still up for grabs in 1996.
In the end, this campaign may rise and fall on an issue or sound bite yet to be heard. But there is a chance that it will be about big questions. How much must we rely on ourselves and how much on each other? What is the role of government in breeding dependency or providing support?
In the universe of politics, women won't gravitate to some distant planet but into the orbit of the candidate who speaks their language. They are listening for a message that's down to earth.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.