Bush turns on charm in bid to woo female voters

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The Independent US

George W Bush tried to shore up his languishing support among women voters yesterday with a TV appearance on the popular afternoon Oprah Winfrey Show. Turning on his famous charm, he told Ms Winfrey that running for president was a relatively recent ambition. He had not given the idea a single thought when he was at college, he said, quipping: "I might have behaved better if I had."

George W Bush tried to shore up his languishing support among women voters yesterday with a TV appearance on the popular afternoon Oprah Winfrey Show. Turning on his famous charm, he told Ms Winfrey that running for president was a relatively recent ambition. He had not given the idea a single thought when he was at college, he said, quipping: "I might have behaved better if I had."

Mr Bush had a hard act to follow: Ms Winfrey's guest on the top-rated US talkshow the previous week was his Democratic opponent, Vice-President Al Gore, who ingratiated himself with the predominantly female audience with a fawning and bantering performance that had the studio audience and his host eating out of his hand.

Ms Winfrey is upfront about her political leanings: she contributed $12,000 (£8,500) to the Democratic Party in the past two elections, but Mr Bush was apparently unworried. The size of the audience for her show, and the relaxed one-on-one format, both made the show a promising forum for Mr Bush. "The governor's looking forward to it," said his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, in advance. "Oprah's always a very important opportunity to connect with a lot of viewers, mostly women."

Women, especially themiddle-income and working-class women who dominate the 22 million Oprah audience, are seen as a key constituency in the November presidential election. More women are registered to vote than men and they tend to be less committed to one party than men.

Despite early attempts to woo women voters, however, Mr Bush finds himself at this stage in the campaign on the wrong side of one of the widest "gender gaps" in American election history. Most polls show Mr Bush in the lead among men, but lagging far behind Mr Gore among women. Mr Gore is also well ahead of Mr Bush on all the issues that women voters say are important: pensions, health care, the family and education.

Just before recording started, Ms Winfrey stressed the non-partisan nature of her questions. Among advance questions submitted by viewers, several homed in on Mr Bush's intellectual capacity (or lack of it); there were also inquiries about his views on guns, pollution and his oil industry inks.

In recent weeks the Bush campaign has watched unhappily as their candidate's ratings among women have fallen. Women had been one of the chief targets of Mr Bush's campaign in its early months: it was primarily to women that his message of "compassionate conservatism" was addressed, with some success. As the campaign became more specific and issues-orientated, however, Mr Gore's emphasis on boosting the social safety net and sound economic stewardship brought women voters back into the Democratic fold.

Some also cite "the kiss" - Mr Gore's lingering embrace of his wife before his address to the Democratic convention last month - which is said to have melted the hearts of women and dissipated all their misgivings abut his perpetual reinventions and artificial manner.

Staged or spontaneous, "the kiss" put Mr Bush at an immediate disadvantage. While he habitually starts his stump speech with a tribute to his wife, Laura, he could hardly change his perfunctory peck just to emulate Mr Gore. Yet after the Al and Tipper clinch, a peck looks half-hearted.

Mr Bush needed to muster all his manly charm yesterday to erase the image of that kiss.

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