- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

AUSTIN, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's plan to finish off Republican rival Sen. John McCain of Arizona has included in recent days an appeal to female voters that he believes will carry over to his November showdown with Vice President Al Gore.

Beginning with his final debate against Mr. McCain last Thursday, and on campaign swings through the big-ticket states of New York and California over the weekend, Mr. Bush has placed a renewed emphasis on his education agenda, an issue that rates highly with women.

And in New York on Friday, he advocated increased funding for breast cancer research, an issue that had scarcely surfaced in his campaign to this point.

Female voters were a key factor in helping Democrat Bill Clinton win and retain the presidency, but Mr. Bush's top aides say they will beat Mr. Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, in November by attracting more women to the GOP.

Especially prominent on the campaign trail with Mr. Bush in the past four days has been Elizabeth Dole, the former Red Cross president and presidential candidate. Mrs. Dole said women will make up 53 percent of the electorate this year, and that older women and middle-class mothers will be the "swing voters" in November.

"Women are going to help sweep George Bush into the White House, and Al Gore is the one who will have a 'gender gap,' " Mrs. Dole told Bush supporters Saturday in upstate New York.

Karen Hughes, Mr. Bush's chief spokeswoman, noted that Mr. Bush drew about 70 percent of the women's vote in his 1998 re-election campaign in Texas.

"We've always been very proud that Gov. Bush does not have a 'gender gap,' " said Mrs. Hughes. "He's an unusual Republican in that he talks [in campaign speeches] about a single mom with kids. He's not a harsh, strident, divisive figure."

Some Bush supporters worry that the Republican primary already has damaged Mr. Bush's prospects with female voters, especially when conservatives Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes forced him to talk daily about his pro-life position in Iowa prior to the state's caucuses in January.

Mr. Gore laid out one of his strategies for the fall campaign on Saturday when he suggested that Mr. Bush has promised Christian conservative leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell that he'll appoint Supreme Court justices committed to overturning Roe vs. Wade, the court ruling that found a legal right to abortion.

"What they're saying is they had a solid promise to give the right-wing extremist wing of the Republican Party control of our Supreme Court," Mr. Gore said. "Let's stop that."

Mr. Bush, who is pro-life, has said he will not use a pro-life "litmus test" to nominate judicial candidates. Mrs. Hughes said Bush campaign officials do not believe the emphasis on abortion early in the Republican primary hurt Mr. Bush with female voters.

"Abortion will always be an issue," Mrs. Hughes said. "Women as well as men have different views. Good people disagree."

She said that in Virginia's primary last week, Mr. Bush beat Mr. McCain by 20 points among female voters. Mr. McCain is viewed by many in the pro-life movement as more moderate than Mr. Bush on abortion, although Mr. McCain is also pro-life. And Virginia's electorate includes a substantial base of Christian conservatives.

Although Mr. Bush has made education one of the main features of his campaign from the beginning, he has returned to the theme with renewed vigor in recent days as he tries to deliver a knockout blow to Mr. McCain in the "Super Tuesday" primaries, in which 613 delegates are at stake.

The Bush campaign seized on Mr. McCain's hesitant answer when asked in last week's debate about his most important contributions to education reform in 18 years in Congress.

"Probably in leading the effort in my, being involved in the effort, in my state for reform in many areas," Mr. McCain said. "Supporting various education programs, member of the Education Committee in the House of Representatives years ago and being part of those efforts as well."

Mr. Bush later called Mr. McCain's answer "vague." Bush strategists are running new radio ads in California beginning today to highlight what they say is Mr. McCain's lack of commitment to the subject.

Mrs. Hughes said the attention on education is aimed at mothers.

"His emphasis on education is clearly popular with women voters," she said. "It's an issue that really resonates with women."

So strongly does Mr. Bush believe that he has the upper hand on the subject over Mr. McCain that he said of their debate, "I wish we could have spent the entire hour on education."

Women who have seen Mr. Bush on the campaign trail recently do seem to recognize his interest in the topic.

"Education, I know he's done some good things with that," said Vicky Monaco, a mother of twin 11-year-old boys in Greece, N.Y. "I know he's involved in a lot of that. It's a main issue with him. He puts it upfront."

Other Republican women say they like Mr. Bush's emphasis on tax cuts for single mothers.

"I think Bush is compassionate and understanding of the working women and understands their difficulties," said Kelly Koegel, a member of the Oswego County, N.Y., Republican Committee. "He's sensitive to endorsing programs that help with child care. I don't think McCain is as sensitive to the working woman's needs."

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