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Wednesday, 1 November, 2000, 16:07 GMT
Sex divides US vote
Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore
Al Gore's supporters say he is best qualified to lead
By Nick Bryant in Missouri

Of all the polls conducted during Campaign 2000, a survey by a used car-buying website, Autotrader.com, produced one of the most telling insights. "If each candidate were a used car," asked pollsters, "what model would he be?"

George W Bush, the poll showed, was a racy Porsche 911, a powerful symbol of potent masculinity. Al Gore was a Volvo, the epitome of reliability, reassurance and safety.

George Bush, wearing a mask of himself, jokes with reporters
Mr Bush is more fun, say many voters
With one simple question, Autotrader.com had gone a long way towards explaining one of Campaign 2000's most powerful electoral dynamics: the gender gap. That is, a tendency amongst men to say they plan to vote Republican and for women to vote Democrat.

At the last election, it was the much-talked about 'soccer mom' vote - suburban mothers, many of whom drive their children in Volvos, curiously enough - which secured President Clinton a second term in office. Fifty-four percent of women voted for Mr Clinton, while just 39% voted for his Republican opponent, Bob Dole.

Men, by contrast, were much more evenly split - 45% voting Democrat, 44% Republican.

Gore's advantage

This year, however, George W Bush has opened up a big gender gap amongst men. A recent poll showed the Texan governor attracting the support of 53% of male voters, with Vice-President Al Gore lagging way behind, with just 38%.

Mr Gore still enjoyed an advantage amongst women - 49% to 41% - but it is nowhere as commanding as the lead which President Clinton enjoyed in 1996.


Mr Bush and his team have shaved off the rough edges of Republican ideology

The Bush campaign has deliberately targeted women voters, espousing more centrist policies on education and healthcare for the aged, and downplaying issues, like abortion and gun advocacy, which have alienated female voters in the past.

On abortion, Bush has distanced himself from the Republican Party's uncompromising anti-abortion stance (the party platform calls for it to be made illegal even in cases of incest, rape and the health of the mother). Instead, the Texan governor has promised not to make abortion a litmus test for his Supreme Court appointments, and has suggested that America is not ready for a constitutional amendment banning abortion.

Compassionate conservatism also seems to chime with female voters, while the governor's genial personality has obvious appeal. In fact, 'W' stands for women, according to his mother, the 75-year-old former first lady Barbara Bush, and his wife, Laura, who last week launched a charm offensive in mid-western states aimed specifically at undecided female voters.

Joined by Bush's chief foreign policy adviser, Condaleeza Rice, and Lyne Cheney, the wife of the Republican vice-presidential running mate, the women focused on education, Medicare and tax cuts. No mention was made of abortion rights. Mr Bush and his team have shaved off the rough edges of Republican ideology.

Gun control

The Democrats meanwhile, argue that compassionate conservatism is a chimera, that President George W Bush would lurch towards the Republican right.

With at least three Supreme Court justices likely to appointed by the next incumbent - and with the landmark Roe vs Wade pro-choice court ruling therefore in the balance - Gore argues that abortion could easily be banned.

Democratic candidate Al Gore
Al Gore is popular with women
Curiously, though, the vice-president has refused to champion gun control, which many suburban and inner-city mothers are known to favour. Even though he privately favours much stiffer restrictions on the sale of guns, he knows they are fiercely opposed by many male voters. And especially ones that live in the key battleground states, like Missouri.

On a personal level, meanwhile, Mr Gore seems to struggle with men.

In towns like Washington, Missouri, they will tell you that they would rather share a beer with Mr Bush, even though the governor is a teetotaller. Mr Bush, who used to own a baseball team and who now owns a ranch, seems to appeal more to men.

It used to be said that American politics should be viewed through the prism of race. It still should be, for it helps explain why, ever since the New Deal of the 1930s, African-Americans have voted overwhelmingly for Democrat candidates, and why white southerners, ever since the civil rights reforms of the mid-60s, have tended to vote Republican.

But gender has become increasingly important. The battle for the White House is showing signs of becoming a battle between the sexes.

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