Wincing women


WASHINGTON -- Now that Bob Dole has the nomination pinned to his lapel like a campaign button, may I suggest that he drop the "little wife" thing. You know, the bit where he says of Liddy, "When she is first lady, she will not be in charge of health care. Don't worry about it. I've already worked that out."

I know it's been a real crowd-pleaser in the primaries, a thigh-slapper among the red-meat, angry-man contingent of the Republican Party. But for every point on the hate-Hillary meter, there is an unrecorded wince among women who know a put-down when they hear one. Running Liddy as the un-Hillary, running Bob as the anti-Hillary, is a bad act.

For one thing, Bob Dole isn't like that. Nor is Liddy Dole. Nor is their marriage. Nor is this subliminal tack against the uppityness of the president's partner going to help with the women voters who are more up for grabs than the Democrats like to believe.

Liddy Dole makes the most unlikely un-Hillary since Marilyn Quayle. Liddy and Hillary were both class presidents, both law-school graduates. They're both intense, religious, driven perfectionists. Only Liddy was there first.

Bob Dole is going to need some of the votes of those wincing women if he plans to get to the White House. So far, they are avoiding the Republican primary. The female share of the primary electorate was expected to be about 53 percent. But only 45.5 percent of the Republican voters in Iowa were women, only 44 percent in New Hampshire and 41 percent in New York. That's not just a gender gap. That's an enthusiasm gap.

The difference between the 1992 Clinton "mandate" and the 1994 Gingrich "sweep" wasn't just the much-heralded angry white men who went Republican, but the unenthusiastic women who stayed home. Women were 56 percent of the nonvoters; their share of the vote dropped 2.5 percent.

To win, Republicans are going to have to attract the women on the fence, including what the pollsters like to call in one of those wonderfully ambiguous phrases suburban swing women. They are also going to have to change the party image. When asked in one poll what springs to mind when they hear the word "Republican," women offered up words like "white men," "old men" and "rich men." And just plain "men."

Senator Dole has problems in that department. He's stuck with an anti-abortion plank that three-quarters of his own party would like to get rid of. He's stuck with Ralph Reed and the crowd who want him to pick a more conservative running mate bye, bye Christie Whitman. And he's stuck with Pat Buchanan.

An alternate role model

As a role model, may I suggest Bill Weld, the Republican who squeaked into the Massachusetts governor's chair with the help of those female suburban swingers. Now running for the Senate, the savvy Governor Weld not only refused to trash the first lady, he offered to "be a character witness for Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Bob Dole might choke on those words. But I'd like to see a campaign that appealed to women on economic substance rather than first-lady symbolism. I'd like Mr. Dole to stop saying who isn't going to be in charge of health care and tell us who is, and what he plans to do about health care. First he has to stop dissing the distaff.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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