SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — About a decade ago, the actor Mel Gibson starred in a romantic comedy where he portrayed a businessman who emerges from an accident with the uncanny ability to hear what women think.
The movie portrayed his unexpected circumstance as a burdensome curse.
But after losing two straight presidential elections, Republicans almost certainly want that ability afflicted upon the 10 men and one woman who appeared on stage at the Reagan Library for the second primary debate of the season Wednesday night.
The Washington Times interviewed women leaders across the country to get their insights on what the 2016 White House contenders need to do to attract female voters.
One theme cropped up repeatedly, and it was best summarized by Carrie Ruud, 63, a Republican and board member of the bipartisan National Foundation of Women Legislators.
“We make the mistake that we only talk to women about one’s issues with family, abortion and education. It’s really not just women’s issues,” Ms. Ruud said.
Women “care about businesses, the economy, especially in the Republican Party. The GOP sometimes fails to speak to women, because the party thinks there are women’s issues,” she added. “We care about all issues. We care about families, but we care about business because the economy affects how our families thrive and survive.
Closing the gender gap is a key deliverable for the GOP in 2016, an election in which each party — Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democrats and Carly Fiorina for the Republicans — boasts a strong female contender for the White House.
Exit polls showed that 53 percent of the voters in the 2012 election were women.
Women backed the Democrat in the last six presidential elections, according to the Gallup organization, which reported that “men favored the Democrat in only two of the last six — 1992 and 1996 — and in only four of the 16 elections since 1952.”
With Ms. Ruud’s advice in mind, here is what the women The Times interviewed said about their favorite issues and candidates.
Several Carly Fiorina fans
Ms. Fiorina’s hard-fought addition to the CNN debate main stage after being shunned in the August debate held by Fox News was on the minds of many of the women The Times interviewed.
Wisconsin state Rep. Kathy Bernier, 59, a Republican, already knows her first-round draft pick for the GOP nomination. “Right now, it’s Carly Fiorina,” said Ms. Bernier. “I’ve listened to her speak and watched her debate, and she handles every question with knowledge and understanding of the issues.
“She was articulate, and she can handle herself very well on the national and international stage,” she added.
Deborah Buzby-Cope, the Republican mayor of Bass River Township, New Jersey, doesn’t pause in declaring what she wants in her next nominee.
“As a woman, I look for honesty and trust in a presidential nominee — somebody who can delegate and have everybody working on the same page and getting the job done,” she said.
“So I do like Carly Fiorina not only because she is very intelligent but she could get people lined up and put in positions that can do the job no matter what the party is when she gets in there. She’s going to need people on her team who can work together.”
Competence and biography also emerged as reasons to like Ms. Fiorina.
“You can’t stump her on an issue. When she talks foreign policy, it’s just really amazing,” Ms. Ruud said. “And you know she started out as a secretary and made it to CEO.”
The Trump factor
Interviews and anecdotes suggest women are curiously divided over GOP front-runner Donald Trump, but they generally agree he has changed the terms of the 2016 debate with his brash, take-no-prisoners, I’m-competent message.
How does Helen Keeley, 50, a Delaware Democratic state representative, view the Republican most distrusted by his party’s establishment?
“Donald Trump is showing every other candidate out there how very frustrated the normal American citizen is,” Ms. Keeley said. “I’m not convinced he will be the Republicans’ nominee, but let me tell you something, he has brought a wake-up call to every other candidate.”
Ms. Ruud, a Republican, agreed.
“From what I know right now, his business experience and what he’s done, I think I would trust him with the presidency. I’m really disappointed we elected this Republican Congress and this Republican Senate. They have done absolutely nothing.”
Democratic women lean toward Clinton
Only Democratic women volunteered any preference for Hillary Rodham Clinton, either for her stance on things they think women care about or for her stature as the only major woman in the small Democratic field.
“I’m still rooting for Hillary because she understand women’s equality, [which] is strong as an issue on women’s radar,” New Jersey Democrat Aimee Belgard, a Burlington County commissioner, told The Times.
“I had a chance to see Carly Fiorina speak at the National Foundation of Women Legislators conference last year and was very much impressed,” she said.
Could Ms. Belgard, a Democrat, bring herself to vote for Ms. Fiorina, a Republican? “In [the] privacy of voting booth I will vote for whoever the best nominee is,” she said.
Republicans almost invariably found either no one on the Democratic side acceptable to them as that opposition party’s nominee or as successor to President Obama.
Some Republican women, however, found Vice President Joseph R. Biden acceptable, even though he is often described in partisan press accounts as an “Obama Democrat.”
“I think I could live with Joe Biden as president. I think he is an honest person,” Ms. Ruud said. “He has the heart of America. I sometimes wonder, in the current administration, if they have the best interests of America at heart.”
What about Bernard Sanders?
“I think he fell off the planet. I couldn’t go there,” she said.
Revealing second choices
Second choices are always revealing at this stage of presidential nomination contests because they can presage the ultimate compromise candidate.
When it comes to the second choice of Ms. Bernier, the Republican who liked Ms. Fiorina, she answered: “Well, I happen to have a real fondness for Gov. Scott Walker,” the Wisconsin governor who has so far not met expectations as a nomination hopeful.
Her third choice? After a long pause, she said, “We have wonderful people running.”
Ms. Ruud, likewise, liked Mr. Walker as a second choice.
“I don’t understand why his campaign hasn’t taken off,” she said.
Equal wage issue resonates with some women
Some women in both parties were either unaware that a federal equal-pay-for-equal-work law has been on the books sine 1963 and has been updated to include women in the professions or they wanted a stronger law.
Ms. Keeley offered a representative argument.
“The most important issue is the women out there who are not being paid the same amount as men,” she said. “Not necessarily in state government, but in private business it’s very frustrating that a man and a woman can do the same job with the same title, and nine time out of 10, the woman is paid less and yet she probably ends up working twice as hard as males.”
A 2004 federal study indicated that women earn an overall 80 percent of what men earn. Some say that is in part because men tend to dominate on the building trades and similar occupations that pay overtime wages that, say, fast-food managers, furniture store managers and professionals aren’t paid.
Ms. Bernier, though a Republican, said if wage equality weren’t already federal law, she’d want to make it so.
Ms. Ruud, however, didn’t bring up the equal pay issue at all and scoffed when pressed on it.
“It’s a misnomer,” she said. “I didn’t like what I heard today from some of our young ladies. I think they are so misguided in thinking women are the underclass,” she said.
“My mother taught me to do whatever I wanted to do. She was in the Red Cross in World War II. She was in the front lines,” she added. “And what I hear today is young women saying if they don’t have the Equal Rights Amendment, that they can’t be successful. That is so untrue.”