As the US presidential election draws near, a new political force could swing the vote - the voice of hard-working, multi-tasking white suburban women
Jan Pease is a school teacher, speech pathologist, and mother of three in Ojai, California. She drives a Chevy Suburban, and has three girls, aged nine, seven, and five. Her husband is an insurance broker, and works fairly long hours. All three of the girls play soccer; she drives them to practice after she gets off work, and they spend most of Saturday playing matches. Jan is, therefore, in the parlance of this year's presidential election campaigns, a "soccer mom".

Word is slowly reaching the women of small towns like Ojai that they are a new political force. Soccer moms, by definition, are far too busy ferrying children to the playing field to read newspapers, but the message is getting through. "I found it rather interesting, this recent radio programme talking about soccer moms, that they are the most powerful voting group right now," says Jan. "We've always felt rather powerless, when it comes to politics."

The mainstream American political press woke up to soccer moms about a month ago, and they took the ball and flew with it. A few sceptics have dared to question who, exactly, soccer moms are. But the broad consensus makes them white suburban mothers, very often working, who constantly drive large numbers of small children to soccer games in mini-vans. Pundits love them, comparing them to Newt Gingrich's angry white males and Richard Nixon's silent majority. "The soccer mom is precisely the kind of regular Jane Mr Dole must attract if he is to narrow the gender gap with President Clinton," the Wall Street Journal pronounced. The newspaper quoted Bob Dole's media consultant, Alex Castellanos: "She's the key swing consumer in the marketplace, and the key swing voter who will decide the election."

The very first soccer mom, it is said, was Betty Broderick, a California housewife who came to fame in 1989 with four children, a four-wheel drive, and a licence plate that read LODEMUP. But Betty didn't quite fit the type: far from tamely trawling her children to the Saturday game, she threw out her cheating husband, and later shot him dead with a .37.

A better candidate is Susan Casey. In 1995 Mrs Casey ran for election in Denver, Colorado, under the slogan "A Soccer Mom for City Council", and won. In recent days she has been called by the New York Times, the Boston Herald, ABC News and the Associated Press for her words on the buzzword of this election season. "It's actually been hysterical," she said. "It has become the hot item."

When Mrs Casey ran, she had a teenaged daughter and son, both playing soccer. Running a soccer family is not just about laundry, and "where's my shoe?", or preparing snacks for 24; it is about the logistics of shunting children to different playing fields on time. Mrs Casey's son Connor, 15, plays for the Lakewood Fury team, which won the regional title in his age group. It has meant five to six tournaments a year, with parents footing $500 entry fees per team. "You fly to wonderful vacation destinations like Kansas City, Missouri," she says. "It's an enormous cost."

Soccer moms themselves seem alternately surprised, flattered and immensely irritated. "No. Absolutely no. Not at all," says Leslie Patterson, an Ojai emergency physician with two soccer-playing sons. "Don't mention me by that label. It sort of conveys this image of a woman driving around in her van, taking kids to soccer practice and spending all her time doing that, as if that's the sole point of her existence. It is just insulting."

Ojai is a picturesque California hill town, about one and a half hours' drive north of Los Angeles proper. Its residents include urban refugees, often with young families, and a scattering of directors and screenwriters who aggressively embrace the small-town life. There are a score of soccer teams with bizarre names. One, sponsored by a local car wash, is called the Bumby Gumby Blueberry Muffins. "My first three are boys, 11, nine and seven," says Leslie Delgado, a housewife whose husband is a product designer. "The little girl just turned six, and there's another baby boy. The 11-year-old is a Scorpion, a Hornet, I'm sorry, he's a Hornet. The nine-year-old is a Screaming Pumpkin, an orange jersey, the seven-year- old is a Dolphin, in blue. And there's a Purple People Eater: that's the little girl team."

Soccer has taken off in America in the past six years, and is a popular sport for girls, but there are still only 2.5 million youngsters involved, clubs report. Soccer moms as a voting population have been tagged at between 40 and 50 million. The sport is actually unimportant; it could be American football, or baseball, but the phrase is a reference symbol that people understand. "What politicians ought to be thinking about is how they impact ordinary lives," says Susan Casey, the Denver council woman. "The ordinary lives of most people revolve around their families, and how to make a balance between work and trying to be with them."

Mr Dole explicitly appealed for the support of soccer moms in the last US Presidential debate, saying he would lower their income taxes. But Bill Clinton has aimed a stream of little initiatives squarely at the stuff of suburban life: tax breaks for college fees, new provisions for family leave from work, ticketing of truants and bringing back school uniforms in the name of school discipline.

It has given his campaign a homely feel, and the strategy may be working. While in 1992, 48 per cent of white married suburban women favoured President Bush over Clinton, recent polls show that 49 per cent now favour Clinton over Bob Dole. The two Leslies are a case in point. Dr Patterson voted for Ross Perot last time around, "but in my heart I wanted Clinton to win, and he's been a fine president," she said.

Mrs Delgado is a Republican by party, and so is her mother, but both feel the same way about Bob Dole. "I'm just not comfortable with him for some reason, and I can't really put it into words," she says. "I get great loyalties to Presidents. If they are doing an OK job I keep them in."