Bush mobilises his women to win over the doubters

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The Independent US

Tonight American voters have what is probably their last chance to compare the presidential candidates directly, when Vice-President Al Gore and George W Bush take the stage for the last, potentially decisive, televised debate in St Louis, Missouri. And, while the "town-hall meeting" format of this third encounter could be the one in which they are most evenly matched, the contenders prepared in different ways, reflecting the divergent moods of their campaigns.

Tonight American voters have what is probably their last chance to compare the presidential candidates directly, when Vice-President Al Gore and George W Bush take the stage for the last, potentially decisive, televised debate in St Louis, Missouri. And, while the "town-hall meeting" format of this third encounter could be the one in which they are most evenly matched, the contenders prepared in different ways, reflecting the divergent moods of their campaigns.

With polls showing Mr Gore had arrested his decline of the past two weeks - but no more than that - a subdued vice-president made his way to St Louis for a practice session with "typical voters". His team, meanwhile, set out a standard week of rallies and meetings for Mr Gore and his running-mate, Joe Lieberman, in key battleground states.

In contrast, the Bush campaign, cock-a-hoop from its candidate's perceived and unexpected victory in last week's debate in North Carolina, announced an energetic 10-day push for the last doubting voters, deploying two special "weapons". From tomorrow the "Bush women" will set out on a tour of three especially closely fought states: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

On board will be the candidate's redoubtable mother, Barbara, who will travel with her daughter-in-law and the candidate's wife, Laura.

Lynne, wife of Mr Bush's running-mate, Richard Cheney, will also be in the party, as will - for a day at a time - Condoleeza Rice, Mr Bush's foreign-policy adviser, and Cindy McCain, wife of Senator John McCain, Mr Bush's vanquished primary opponent, who, despite his best efforts to appear inconspicuous, is still a rallying point for independent voters.

On Sunday, 29 Republican state governors convene in Austin, the Texas capital, also Bush HQ, to voice support for him before fanning out across the country to extol his strengths as a chief executive. Among them will be Mr Bush's brother Jeb, Governor of Florida, whose low profile in his state's campaign so far has been a source of much speculation.

While the mobilisation of such prominent Republican women and such an impressive array of governors will offer a rich supply of photo-opportunities, it also has a substantive purpose. In the category of undecided voters there are many more women than men.

What is more, these women, so polls show, are much less impressed with Mr Bush than male voters. Women find Mr Bush's sometimes offhand, quasi-aristocratic manner more offputting than men do, and they worry that he is less committed to preserving a social safety net than is Mr Gore. By deploying the women closest to him, Mr Bush wants to convey an image of approachable dependability and maybe counter the effect of the Gores' lingering kiss before his speech at the Democratic party convention. Rightly or wrongly, this has entered political mythology as the move that did most to enhance Mr Gore's electability among female voters.

Barbara Bush, who still commands widespread affection, also manages to campaign for her son without the stigma of failure in elected office that attends her husband, the former president George Bush Snr.

The inclusion of Cindy McCain, who became an adept and sought-after campaigner in her own right through the primaries, amounts to a direct appeal to Democrats and independent voters. Lynne Cheney, an academic and commentator on the right of the political spectrum, can be calculated to appeal to conservatives, while Ms Rice, a respected academic and administrator - and also black - can broaden Mr Bush's appeal across racial lines and with younger professional women, a group that leans towards Mr Gore.

Mobilising the massed ranks of Republican governors is not only an impressive feat in itself but is also calculated to remind voters of the origins of Mr Bush's candidacy. His power-base was never in the Republican-majority Congress - widely castigated by the Democrats as the "do-nothing Congress" and a redoubt of diehard conservatives who tried vainly to oust the president - but in the supposedly more centrist, pragmatic and effectual Governors' Association. If there is one big doubt about Mr Bush's fitness for the presidency, it is his experience and competence. The governors will be out to spread the message that George W Bush is more capable, more experienced and more savvy as a chief executive than he might seem - and no less qualified for the White House than his opponent, the two-term vice-president of the United States.

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