Special to the Register

TO MOST OBSERVERS, May was a good month for Bob Dole. His presidential campaign was sagging badly when it first got a small lift by his decision to push to repeal the Clinton gas tax increase. Then a series of events, including Dole's decision to resign from the Senate and meet voters face to face, the guilty Whitewater verdicts in Arkansas, and the President's ill-advised decision to claim active-duty military status in order to delay a sexual harassment lawsuit have given the Dole campaign reason to smile. The Senator's polls, while still trailing the President's, have risen slightly and his campaign seems to have regained a sense of enthusiasm.

But one sour spot remains for Dole as he seeks to close the gap between himself and the President. While Dole may be making headway in some quarters, Bill Clinton owns a commanding lead among women voters. The ‘gender gap” is back and it is hitting the Dole campaign hard. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released May 26 found that President Clinton leads Senator Dole by a whopping 30 points among registered female voters; 61 percent for Clinton versus 31 percent for Dole. The same poll found only a 12 percent gap among male voters, while other polls have shown the male vote to be split about evenly between the two candidates.

There has been discussion about a growing gender gap between the two parties for many years, but the gap has become a reality only recently. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan received 55 percent of the women's vote, despite the presence of a female (Geraldine Ferraro) on the Democratic ticket. In 1988, George Bush won 52 percent of the women's vote in the race against Michael Dukakis. However, President Bush had several well-publicized clashes with the Congress over issues of importance to women-including abortion, child care, and family leave. By 1992, his support among women had waned considerably.

That same year Democrats made a high-profile effort to showcase their female candidates for the House and Senate. (In 1990, by contrast, the GOP did little to highlight the five female Republican House members running for the U.S. Senate—and all of them lost.) Democratic organizations like Emily's List actively recruited and funded women to run for Congress, and the Clinton-Gore ticket used its pro-choice credentials to its advantage while skewering President Bush for vetoing the Family and Medical Leave Act. “the Year of the Woman” theme helped boost female voter turnout, and Bill Clinton won 46 percent of the women's vote.

“I‘ve seen the poll numbers and you’ve seen the poll numbers that say: ‘well, there's a gender gapxs,’” Dole told the National Federation of Republican Women May 7. “does that bother me? You bet it does. I don't believe there should be a gender gap. I think that gap will close. Do I have a plan to eliminate it? Yes I do.”

In that speech, Dole mentioned some parts of his record “on issues of importance to women” that he will highlight in the campaign, among them his support for the Violence Against Women Act; his plan to crack down on repeat rapists; and his strong support for measures to make adoption easier for more families.

Anne Lewis, deputy director of the Clinton-Gore campaign, told The New York Times that Dole had been “wrong on every major issue affecting women, including, perhaps most symbolically, the Family and Medical Leave Act.” This bill, which Dole opposed, would grant working parents up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn, or a sick child, spouse or parent. It was strongly supported by many working mothers who often have to juggle workplace and family responsibilities. The bill was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993.

Clinton's unflinching pro-choice stance also appeals to a huge swath of women voters, while Dole's pro-life position appeals to a more narrow segment of women. “the abortion issue is a major problem for the Republicans,” said one female Democrat congressional aide. “younger and middle-aged women feel very strongly about it, and Dole and his party are on the wrong side.”

Some Republican women have made an effort to reach out to women on behalf of their party. Agroup of female Republican House members have recently begun speaking about the party's efforts on issues of importance to women. “The women of the Republican Party can be the best messengers this year,” said Rep. Jeimifer Dunn (R-WA) in an interview with The Washington Post. “We can tell the story of what the party is trying to do with a softer edge to the conservative message.” She points to the efforts of the GOP in increasing child care funding in welfare reform, and easing adoption regulations.

Even while some women Republican legislators are making these efforts, the divisive abortion issue is still an obstacle for the GOP to overcome as it appeals to women, a majority of whom are pro-choice. This helps explain why many pro-choice GOP women are making efforts to soften the pro-life plank in the GOP platform. “it's not the abortion issue in and of itself, but what the Republican Party says about women: less government is better except in the case of women,” said Senator Olympia Snowe (RME) recently.

Some Republican women are less concerned about the gender gap. Indeed, some question whether there is a series of so-called women's issues. “I think the notion that there is one set of ‘w omen's issues’ is wrong,” said Ruth Ravitit, a top aide to Connecticut's Republican Governor, John Rowland. “Women do tend to look closely at family issues, but economic issues are theirs, too.”

“It is harder to categorize issues just as ‘w omen's issues,’” said Julie Cutler, a Democratic consultant and veteran of Democratic House and Senate campaigns. “Women are just as concerned with economic issues as men are, but they tend to approach these issues in a different way. Women view education as an economic issue, for example, whereas men are more worried about holding the line on taxes. Some worry about Republican efforts to cut education and job training.”

She added that Clinton owes a debt of gratitude “to Newt Gringrich for his lead among women. Women see a threat in this Republican Congress. The Republicans’ willingness to cut programs that benefit women and children have made them seem cold and heartless. Women have had a strong emotional to the Republican Revolution.”

Some recent analyses do show that the women's vote may be harder to characterize than previously thought. “it's not easy to squeeze the nation's nearly 100 million females into a box labeled ‘the women's vote,”’ writes pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick in The Wall Street Journal. “there are large differences among the way women vote based on their age, marital status, geography, socioeconomic status, and race. A twenty-something female college graduate wondering why she pays for entitlements she'll never receive may have more in common with men her own age than with older women who rely on those entitlements.”

Fitzpatrick points to recent polls conducted for Emily's List, which found that 41 percent of white women under the age of 33 identify themselves as Republicans, as compared to 33 percent who say that they are Democrats. These younger women backed Republicans by a 26-point margin on economic issues, and by a 29-point margin on issues dealing with personal responsibility.

Another potential asset for Bob Dole is his wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole. The former Cabinet member labor secretary under President Reagan, transportation secretary under President Bush, and current president of the American Red Cross, Republican insiders believe, can help her husband in his appeal to women. “she is a tremendous asset,” said Lauren Sims, spokesperson for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “she is dynamic, articulate, and intelligent. She has a great grasp of the issues and she's a good campaigner. She is a role model for all women.”

Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.