Mothers of America are kicking Dole into touch

THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

President Bill Clinton, it seems, has a feeling for women. This is not meant as a snide reference to his reputation as a flirt and even a philanderer. We are talking here about his stunning success in appealing to the female vote.

It is not an unimportant phenomenon. If the President indeed sails into harbour next week, he will owe whatever margin of victory he achieves over Bob Dole above all to women. Dubbed the "gender gap", it is not only providing him with a mighty edge, it may also be of long-term significance for the electoral balance in America between the Democrat and Republican parties.

The evidence in the polling statistics. These suggest that nationwide women favour Clinton over Dole this year by between 22 and 26 per cent, while his advantage among men is closer to 4 per cent. In several battleground states, like Texas, Clinton is trailing Dole amongst males but stands to win because of his high female support. Theories abound about what is corraling women towards Clinton. A favourite revolves around what has emerged as the prevailing epithet of the closing days of the campaign: the so-called "soccer-mom". She is the middle-class, middle-of-the-road mother, who may work but also spends her days cramming her kids into her four-wheel-drive for football matches on Saturday afternoons. She is politically aware, mainstream - and pro-Clinton.

Attend any of the President's rallies in the sunset of this campaign, as I did in Philadelphia on Tuesday, and an array of explanations present themselves. Women in the giant crowd, some who fitted the "soccer-mom" cliche and many who did not, offered various reasons. High among them are his stand on abortion, his championing legislation that allows family members time off work for family events such as childbirth or illness, his environmental polices, their appreciation of Hillary Clinton, and - according to most grannies anyway - his good looks.

Obvious also is the tailoring of Mr Clinton's appearances to women. He is introduced by two local university students, both of them female. Patti Labelle, the singer, is on stage with him. In 20 minutes of speaking, he evokes tax-cuts for child-rearing, schooling and the Internet (including the heavy use by children of the Socks-the-Cat web page), the record number of women-owned businesses and programmes to clean up toxic-wastes dump so that "children will grow up next to a park not next to the waste of America."

Jane Toll, who, as the head an education programme for inner-city kids, might be a super-soccer-mom, offers one analysis. "I think women are more focused on the issues that affect their lives individually and President Clinton addresses those issues. Dole doesn't do that, he is only interested in tax-cuts for the wealthy." In almost every interview, distaste for Dole - either as too old, too disconnected from real life or too much under the influence of the extreme Christian Right - is also expressed.

Paula Hirtle is a graduate student with no soccer-playing children. "Dole is just too old to be able to relate to a 22-year-old on the issues. What he is doing with his life is so different from what I am about right now." Louann Casey, meanwhile, is middle-aged and a lesbian. "Clinton is able to communicate that he understands what we are facing. Dole doesn't come across as being concerned about daily issues that are important to women."

Mike McCurry, Mr Clinton's spokesman, acknowledges there has been a conscious effort in the campaign to pay attention to issues that may be of concern to women.Nita Godmilow, at the rally with her middle-aged daughter, had a more down-to-earth view. "It's because he looks like JFK".

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