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Would GOP nominate a woman?

Elizabeth Dole, in first New Hampshire swing, tests themes and level ofsupport.

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One year before New Hampshire voters cast their ballots in the nation's first presidential primary, Republicans are asking themselves the musical question: Is the GOP ready to put a woman on the ticket?

Elizabeth Dole's visit here this week, her first since leaving the helm of the American Red Cross last month, has pushed that issue to the fore. Even though her speech to the city's sellout Chamber of Commerce dinner was greeted only with measured applause - she stopped short of announcing a run for the presidency - she still created a buzz just by being here.

"I have friends who are ready to work for her, no matter what her stand on the issues," says Bea Francoeur, head of the just-formed New Hampshire Women's Forum.

If Mrs. Dole does run for president, as expected, her candidacy will represent the best chance ever for a major American political party to nominate a woman for president. She has proven fund-raising prowess, wide name recognition, and three decades of experience in high-profile public service.

Most polls of Republican voters show her second only to Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), another undeclared candidate, in the early running for the GOP nomination.

All other candidates trail far behind. And here in New Hampshire, she even beat Governor Bush by one point - 31 percent to 30 percent - in a recent poll for WMUR-TV in Manchester.

State Republican activists maintain that New Hampshire voters are used to electing women, and that Dole's gender, in and of itself, doesn't present an obstacle in a state whose primary virtually determines who the nominee will be.

"This is a great testing state" for putting a woman on the ballot, says Steve Duprey, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "We have a woman governor, a woman Speaker of the House. We've had a woman senate president. We have more women state legislators than any other state in the country."

The day Dole announced her resignation from the Red Cross, the state GOP headquarters was flooded with calls from activists asking how they could reach her, Mr. Duprey says.

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