MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Now the women get their say.
Female voters generally turn out at a lower rate than men in Republican primaries, but not in South Carolina, where in past elections estimates say they have made up about half of the electorate — more than all but a few other states.
That could bode well for Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has done well among female voters in the first two contests and has a chance to build up his margins here.
It also could be bad news for Newt Gingrich, who polling suggests has a problem relating to, and winning over, South Carolina female voters, despite having done fine among them up north.
"Gingrich is turning off Southern females all over the place," said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist who lives in Richmond and said he has heard that from Southern women recently. "The worst insult any Southern female can offer anybody is describe them as being like a Yankee, and that phrase has come up more than one time in the last week with girls in the South. He's behaving like a Yankee."
Mr. Gingrich made a well-publicized effort to reach out to women ahead of Iowa's caucuses. He sat down for a chat sponsored by CafeMom.com, during which moderator Frank Luntz asked the former House speaker to recall his own mother, which caused Mr. Gingrich to begin weeping.
"I do policy much easier than I do personal," Mr. Gingrich said.
That's far from the case for Mr. Romney and another candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum, both of whom won a higher percentage among women than men in Iowa and New Hampshire, and who poll better among women in South Carolina.
Women are key in South Carolina more than in almost any other Republican primary. In 2008, they made up 49 percent of those captured in exit polling in the GOP primary here, which is more than all but a few other states that cycle. Coming so early in the process, it offers female Republicans their best chance to influence the outcome.
Earlier this week, two other presidential candidates — Mr. Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — sat down with CafeMom in Myrtle Beach to try to win that demographic.
Mr. Santorum handled questions ranging from his views on contraception to his thoughts on stay-at-home moms.
He appeared alongside his wife Karen, a mother of seven, who recounted the tribulations of being on the campaign trail, including her basement flooding three times.
Mr. Perry also appeared with his wife, Anita.
"She's the first girl I ever had a date with," Mr. Perry said, drawing looks of disbelief from the mothers in the audience.
On the broader campaign trail, many candidates already are striking chords that resonate with women by making their pitches focused on the economy and creating an environment for more jobs.
The campaigns liberally have deployed their children to campaign for them as well.
Political analysts say a gender gap is common between Republicans and Democrats in general elections, but it is rare for candidates in a primary, where voters are usually more ideologically homogenous.
But this year, Rep. Ron Paul and Mr. Gingrich appear to be making pitches that resonate more with men than women.
A Monmouth University Polling Institute survey earlier this week found Mr. Gingrich winning men at a rate 5 percentage points higher than with women. A CNN poll released Wednesday put that gap at 12 percentage points.
It's possible to get some sense for what's driving the differences between men and women.
A poll by The Washington Times/JZ Analytics of likely primary voters nationwide released this week asked who they thought would be more likely to offer them a helping hand if they needed it. Fourteen percent of men said Mr. Gingrich, but only 7 percent of women did.
Meanwhile, 24 percent of women said Mr. Santorum would — far higher than the 17 percent of men who said the same thing.
Asked which candidate reminds them of their favorite relative, 24 percent of men said Mr. Gingrich did. Just 16 percent of women answered the same. For Mr. Santorum, that was flipped to 13 percent of women but just 7 percent of men.
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