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2 HOPEFULS WOO WOMEN DIFFERENTLY

SHARE 2 HOPEFULS WOO WOMEN DIFFERENTLY

Well, I did my patriotic duty, despite the best efforts of the predebate spinners who had lowered expectations for this debate somewhere between the furnace and the carpenter ants in my basement.

By the time the two candidates appeared Sunday night, right after the wedding of Superman and Lois, we were supposed to be relieved if Dole and Clinton got through 90 minutes without tripping over the podium or their tongues.The suspense couldn't have been lower.

Nevertheless, the two competitors have honed their campaigns according to the ZIP code, race, gender, age, eye color and cola preference of the targeted voters. At this mass media event, they were also narrowcasting for votes, and in my demographic pond.

As a white married female, somewhere between soccer mom and senior citizen, living on the edge between city and suburb, with enough income to make a 15 percent tax cut attractive and enough conscience to wonder where it's coming from - I haven't had two men pay me this much attention since I was 18.

So I tuned in, renounced my surfing impulses, and hung around to figure out why and whether the candidates registered any throbs - heart or head - in this much-wooed section of the political anatomy.

First, one small claim for the much-lamented "feminization" of this campaign which many ruefully declare has turned the race into a treacly Oprah-ized sharing of pain: There's another side to the story.

Our foremothers in the suffrage movement always said - a bit optimistically - that women would have a civilizing effect on politics. Well, this pitch for the women in the middle was nothing if not civil. Even Bob Dole, who was both funnier and nastier than the president, stayed on the safe side of caustic.

But if you want to know why Dole is having a "woman problem" it was all out there on the podium.

The candidate is terminally awkward talking to or about women, as if the subject were sex, not gender. When he includes women's issues into the conversation, the seams show.

Sunday night, the former senator returned to his biography to show that he had heart - "I know all about poverty and all about need." He liberally (or kind of liberally) sprinkled his remarks with reassuring Republican meat tenderizer: "I'm not some extremist here."

This late in the campaign, Dole is still introducing himself. He has as much trouble staying in touch with family concerns as he does maintaining eye contact with the camera.

Indeed his appeals to women are a bit "off," rather like his appeal to the drug-tempted youth of America - "Just Don't Do It" - when he closed the evening by leaving the kids his Web site address.

But the awkwardness in his courtship rituals isn't all style. The Republican is still making his one substantive pitch to moms - with a tax cut. Again Sunday night he said that his 15 percent cut would enable women to quit work and spend more time with the kids. Won't somebody get this guy a calculator.

As for Clinton - and let's hear it for the behavior modification expert who trained him to stop biting his lip - sometimes the president gets too much credit for too little. He mentioned the Family and Medical Leave Act no less than four times in one 90-minute debate.

But he has built up, layer by layer, a relationship with women who are less enamored with pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps economics and more interested in community. He talks (and talks and talks) the language of caring. And he listens.

There is the real sense that he knows what's going on in your kitchen, with your kids, and gets it. Clinton's not from Mars.

The pollsters will tell us that voters react as much to nonverbal messages as to text. Here's the marital image that came over me on my sofa Sunday night. If you were in a fight with Bill Clinton, he'd keep you up till 4 in the morning arguing it out, but he'd be engaged. If you were trying to get Bob Dole's attention, he'd put the newspaper in front of his face.

The support of women for the president isn't exactly a romantic wedding. It's more like a renewal of vows. We've already been through a lot with the guy, we know him - his strong points and his weak points. And we know what else is out there.

Nothing happened on Sunday night to change that. My guess about the target population of American women? We're gonna go home with the guy what brung us.