FAIRFAX, Va. -- Bob Dole's bid for the presidency faces a riptide of feminine opposition, and Libby Lucas, a 34-year-old Republican wife, mother and businesswoman, was eager to pause while shopping here the other day to explain why.
She disagrees with Dole's stand against abortion, finds his platform lacking proposals aimed at children, and fears that the money for his 15 percent tax cut would be taken from social services benefiting poor women.
Beyond that is a more basic reaction to the 73-year-old former Senate leader.
"He's just too old," said Lucas, tending to her 1-year-old son as he slept in his stroller. "He has the same outlook that my parents do.
"I think it's wonderful to think that we could go back, but the world has changed."
Republican presidential candidates have been fighting a gender gap since 1980, when Ronald Reagan's drive to curb government was embraced enthusiastically by men but sent a disproportionate number of female voters into the Democratic camp.
This year, though, polls show the gender gap has expanded into a broad and deep chasm, far beyond even the "soccer moms," this year's catch phrase for independent, suburban women whom the Dole campaign hopes will provide critical swing votes.
An ABC-Wall Street Journal poll shows that, with the election less than a week away, President Clinton is leading among all voters by a margin of 52 percent to 35 percent.
Among women, Clinton's lead stretches to 56 percent vs. 32 percent for Dole. Among men, the race narrows to 48 percent for Clinton and 38 percent for Dole.
A closer examination conducted by Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Celinda Lake from Oct. 18 through 22 shows Clinton well ahead with women in nearly all categories of age, income, religion and employment status except for evangelical Christians and homemakers.
Particularly troublesome for Dole is the defection of many working married mothers, such as Lucas, a Southern, white conservative who backs Republicans for Congress but will split her ticket to vote for Clinton -- though she doesn't much care for him, either.
"I find it puzzling," said Bernadette Budde, director of Bi-Pac, the political action committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"Other Republican presidential candidates have been able to cut into the gender gap, but Dole isn't even running as well with women as the Republican Congress."
It's not that Dole hasn't been trying to reach women.
He fashioned his income tax-cut proposal -- which promises a 15 percent across-the-board cut and a $500 per child credit -- specifically with women in mind, said Dole spokesman John Buckley.
In his stump speeches, Dole says the extra money could help out with household bills, pay for a family vacation, or even allow one spouse the option of staying home with the children.
Mindful that education is a key issue for women voters, Dole proposed vouchers for "school choice" and has made a bid for Catholic women, who could use vouchers to send children to private or parochial schools.
But critics say Dole's efforts to reach out to women have been sporadic, scatter-shot and drowned out by seemingly conflicting messages.
Frank J. Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that the GOP was able to shrink the gender gap for George Bush in his successful election of 1988 by dividing up the women's vote into 13 separate socio-economic categories and targeting each one with customized advertising.
Dole has run several ads aimed at women, including a new one featuring a single mother working two jobs who complains, "Clinton hasn't done anything to make it better for my house."
But Fahrenkopf said: "Just delivering a broad message across the board is not enough."
What's more, Dole's periodic speeches on school choice were not nearly adequate to satisfy women's concerns about education, said Kelly Ann Fitzpatrick, a Republican pollster.
In the Greenberg-Lake survey, 85 percent of women said education would be "very important" in determining their vote this year.
But instead of assuring women of his commitment to make schools better, Dole failed to quell fears that he would cut education spending. In fact, he underscored those concerns by saying he still supports a GOP drive to eliminate the Department of Education.
"It's been difficult for him to reach out to moderate women and at the same time hold on to his conservative base," Buckley said of the GOP candidate.
Most exasperating, even to Dole's closest aides, is Dole's persistence in attacking the Family and Medical Leave Act.
The nearly 4-year-old law requiring that large companies grant unpaid time off for family emergencies is favored by 84 percent of women, according to an earlier Wall Street Journal poll, and it has been amicably accepted by most businesses it affects.
Yet Dole, who resisted the measure in Congress as a government intrusion into private industry, urges a return to voluntary policies.
"I wish he'd stop talking about it," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican.
She argued that Dole should be focusing instead on his impressive record of support for proposals to curb domestic violence and expand professional opportunities for women, as well as dealing with federal employee concerns.
Dole relied heavily on female advisers during his long career and promoted them to top jobs, but he leaves it to surrogate speakers -- including his wife, Elizabeth, and women members of Congress -- to promote that feature of his record.
"We have found a lot of women in the country were not really aware of Bob Dole's personal record and professional record as relates to women," said Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican. "We do a better job than he does of explaining that."
The GOP nominee's more recent gambit of attacking Clinton on ethical issues is also aimed at women, but it seems to score only with those women who are already inclined to vote for Dole.
"What surprises me is that people do not care much about character," said Patricia Ireland, 49, a Cincinnati Republican, who brought three of her four children to a Dole rally in her hometown recently. "I'm just confounded by it."
Women inclined to support Clinton say they don't see Dole as a paragon of virtue, either.
"Dole is a divorced man. I'm kind of old-fashioned; I don't approve of that," said Vicki Singh, 36, a Democrat from Northern Virginia who recently quit work to stay at home with her two young children. "The Clintons have had problems in their marriage, like everybody does, but they stayed together and worked them out."
Not all Dole's problems are his doing.
He began the race hobbled by the budget-cutting efforts of the Republican-led Congress, which energized Democratic women who didn't vote in 1994 and alarmed women in the GOP.
Then, Clinton, backed by millions of dollars of advertising, exploited that weakness.
The president designed his own platform with proposals tuned to the feminine ear: school uniforms, V-chips to block violence on television, preventing teen smoking, breast cancer research.
"He redefined the role of government," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "Not as big government, which had doomed his health care proposal, but as an unobtrusive uncle, standing by to help if you need it, but not forcing himself on you."
Pub Date: 10/29/96