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Why women are edging toward Bush

A growing group of 'security moms' puts national safety at the top of their list, weakening a traditionally Democratic base.

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Amid all the strategizing and message-mongering and imagemaking of the 2004 campaign, all aimed at attracting various demographic groups, one stark fact has risen to the top: President Bush has made serious inroads with women voters, to the point where, in some polls, he is beating Democrat John Kerry among females. If that trend holds, Bush will almost surely win reelection.

Democrats have long held an edge among women voters, a slight majority of the electorate, and grown to count on them to offset the Republicans' persistent advantage among men. Traditionally, women have given extra care to issues that favor Democrats, such as healthcare, education, and Social Security. Now, the war on terror - and the way Bush is playing it - appears to have shifted that calculation somewhat.

"Bush is trying to reassure them on healthcare and education, saying those things are important, but really it's security," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "Women give him a 23-point advantage on security, and that's what's really driving their vote."

Particularly over the past month, the president gets credit for making the war in Iraq part of the war on terror in many women's minds. While women used to give Senator Kerry an advantage on the Iraq war, they now give Bush a 10-point advantage, Ms. Lake says. And, she adds, "even though they give Kerry a 16-point advantage on the economy, they're not focused on it."

What's really happening is that Bush has made inroads lately among both women and men, says Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. And, she notes, there's still a gender gap - the difference between the proportion of men and the proportion of women who support a candidate.

But she agrees that Bush has gained by aggressively shifting the focus of the country to security. "It's the combination of the Republican convention and Bush hammering at that message, plus recent events in Russia," says Ms. Carroll, referring to the terrorist takeover and massive death toll at a school in southern Russia. That tragedy, which took place in a remote location, reminded Americans that an attack could come anywhere. Some voters give Bush credit for the lack of terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11.

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