WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Bob Dole's choice of Susan Molinari to give the keynote speech at the Republican convention is an obvious attempt to begin chiseling away at the notorious gender gap in American politics. It will take a lot more.
Ms. Molinari, at 38 serving her third term in the House of Representatives from a Staten Island district her father represented for the previous decade, is supposed to send a message to women voters that, yes, you can be a woman who supports abortion rights and still live happily ever after in the Republican Party.
She is viewed within the party as an effective and aggressive politician whose perky style will contrast sharply with that of the dour 72-year-old senator.
But the dimensions of Mr. Dole's problem with women voters are so staggering that no one can possibly imagine that one speech at a convention is going to make much difference, even assuming voters bother to watch it. Some surveys show the presumptive Republican nominee trailing President Clinton among women by 30 points or more. And they show particular weakness among Republican and independent women under 40 who live in the suburbs and among women over 60 without regard to political affiliation or location.
There is, however, little reason to believe that this gap -- it might better be called a chasm -- has developed because of "women's issues" such as abortion rights. On the contrary, what the polling data suggest is that women oppose Mr. Dole on the same grounds as men, only more so.
The single most sensitive issue is economic. Many women feel uncertainty about their jobs and their ability to care properly for their children. This group includes both single mothers and married women uneasy about their own incomes as well as their husbands' futures.
Older women feel economically vulnerable because many are living on fixed and limited incomes. They have been frightened by what they see as Republican extremism in proposals to change the Medicare program.
Women voters also appear to be more sensitive than their male counterparts to perceived differences between the candidates on education and crime. Although many of them are hardly great admirers of Bill Clinton, they see him as far more concerned than Senator Dole about people like themselves.
An old story
The gender gap is not new. For a generation Democrats in many gubernatorial and Senate as well as presidential campaigns have enjoyed an advantage among women. It didn't matter so much " to the Republicans because of the other side of the coin -- the heavy vote against anyone perceived as liberal by white males.
Moreover, in many campaigns the gender gap was less meaningful because the turnout among women -- and particularly single working women -- was relatively low. That was the case, for example, in many congressional elections the Republicans won in 1994.
The abortion issue has helped Democrats decisively in some elections. But the defection from George Bush among suburban Republicans in 1992 has been traced not just to the abortion issue but to the militantly moralistic tone of the Republican convention at Houston.
The problem Senator Dole faces today, however, is that he is still perceived so dimly by so much of the electorate and has so little in his resume to make him attractive to women for whom his military record 50 years ago has little relevance.
His strategists clearly understand that this is not the kind of political problem that can be solved with a keynote speech by Susan Molinari or anyone else. That is why they had their candidate spend much of last week talking about education.
But voters always feel they are taking something of a risk when they vote for an unknown quantity against an incumbent president, and women clearly feel more vulnerable to the dangers that might ensue from a mistake. At some point, Bob Dole must persuade them he is a safe alternative.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 7/22/96