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In party switch, women prefer Bush over Gore

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Women like Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

So do men, for that matter. But it's the early polling numbers on women's presidential preferences that have some Democrats concerned and Republicans calculating how to hang onto women voters all the way to the November 2000 election.

For the Democrats' presidential hopes, the math is stark: Bill Clinton won the presidency on the strength of the women's vote, and for Vice President Al Gore to succeed him, Democrats say he'll have to do the same. The Democrats have been losing male voters, making women all the more important, analysts say.

But in the latest poll of possible presidential matchups, a survey of New Hampshire voters by the firm Research 2000, women backed Governor Bush over Mr. Gore 51 percent to 41 percent. A recent nationwide Gallup poll shows Bush beating Gore among women by 12 points. Another leading Republican contender, Elizabeth Dole, also beats Gore by 12 points among women.

"A lot of it has more to do with who Bush and who Dole are," says independent pollster Del Ali of Research 2000. "These are the new rising stars - a different type of Republicans who don't talk like the rank-and-file Republicans."

But analysts note that the public doesn't know any of the candidates well, including Gore, and they caution against overinterpreting the polls. Still, Democrats "should be worried," says Mr. Ali.

For Republicans, these early polls represent an opportunity to make inroads with female voters, a constituency that has long confounded them. What the GOP needs to do is develop strong moderate messages on the issues women care most about, such as education, health, and the environment, analysts say. Passing gun-control legislation, favored by a majority of women, is a start.

After candidates begin to formulate agendas and define their positions on issues, then any breakdowns along gender lines will become truly apparent.

"The one thing we know for sure about the gender gap is it seems to be issue-based," says analyst Susan Carroll at the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "So far there hasn't been much talk about issues. Support for candidates is very soft, and everyone knows that."

Another sign of hope for Democrats is that in polls gauging voter preference for generic congressional candidates, a plurality of women still favors Democrats.

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