DEMOCRATIC presidential candidate Bill Clinton is drawing wide support among women voters - the largest and most galvanized segment of the electorate this year.
The support is especially strong among women under 40 years old.
Several recent polls - including those conducted by ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, Gallup/USA Today/CNN and NBC/Wall Street Journal - point to a gender gap, although the margins vary.
"There's a gap, just like there was in 1984 with [Democratic candidate Walter] Mondale. Women supported him, but men didn't. This year the gap hurts President Bush," says Peter Feld, an analyst with Peter Hart Research.
"Given the present conditions of [economic] hopelessness," women possess " a tremendous drive for change," says GOP pollster Vince Breglio, who, with Mr. Feld, conducted the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey. The "economy factor" is more intensely felt among women voters under 40, he says.
Generally these women are working outside the home, they have children, buy the groceries, pay the bills, and watch the household budgets. Many hold Bush accountable for the two years of economic downturn and the poor recovery prospects.
"There is a wave of change throughout the country, and women are at the crest of that wave," Feld says.
But women voters may not necessarily "change the outcome in many places," he cautions. "If you take the women out of the wave, the race will be substantially closer, but the results will be the same."
Women will vote for stability, Breglio says, "for well-being, as they see it." They are also reacting with "antipathy toward the Republican conservative philosophy of the last 10 to 12 years."
For example, in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, 43 percent of all women said they would vote for Governor Clinton, 30 percent for President Bush, and 16 percent for independent candidate Ross Perot. Among men, 36 percent backed Mr. Bush, 35 percent Clinton, and 21 for Mr. Perot.
Among women under 40, the numbers shift markedly: Support for Clinton rises to 47 percent; support for Bush falls to 26 percent; and support for Perot increases to 19 percent. For men in that age bracket, Clinton's share rises to 38 percent, Bush's falls to 34 percent, and Perot's rises 1 percentage point. Studies by the League of Women Voters Education Fund show that since 1984, women have consistently voted in larger numbers than men during presidential and congressional elections.
Female voters are being mobilized by a host of issues: last year's Anita Hill hearings, which many women believe revealed sexism in Congress and elsewhere in government; recent US Supreme Court decisions on abortion that threaten to limit freedom of choice; and White House actions, such as the president's veto of the family-leave bill.
Clinton cannot take that gender gap for granted, says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority, an advocacy group supported by 70,000 feminists.
She says that because Perot draws his support mainly among male voters, he could divert some of the male vote from Clinton and Bush. "Women will become even more important" to the leading candidates, Ms. Smeal says.
But Smeal says she is disappointed with Clinton's campaign. The frontrunner "hasn't locked in the gender vote because he hasn't embraced women's issues. Why isn't he reminding us of the dangers of a more conservative Supreme Court and other concerns, for example?" she asks.
Assistant Clinton campaign chairman Skip Rutherford says, "Women have been and continue to be central to this election, and the major issues in the campaign really affect and motivate women." They are involved "well beyond the abortion issue," he says, listing concerns such as health-insurance costs. "There are lots of single mothers who can barely afford it for themselves, much less for their children."
Mr. Rutherford also cites child-care costs, early childhood education, and fathers who are not held accountable for child-support payments. "These are what I call living-room issues," he says. "People sit at home and worry. They ask: `What can I do?' "
Baby boomers, principally women, Rutherford says, are concerned about being squeezed by the amount of money they are spending on their aging parents and their own children.
Clinton, he says, drew support from women before the Democratic convention: "He hit a very good campaign stride before the convention, and he maximized it when he selected Al Gore as his running mate. The candidates' wives - Hillary Clinton and Tip-per Gore - are strong women who address women's and family issues head on."