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If Bob Dole fails in his effort to close the big lead President Clinton has in polls among women voters, it will not be for a lack of trying at the Republican National Convention last week.

Women were given some of the most prominent roles at the convention. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the nation's only woman governor, served as temporary co-chairman of the convention. New York Rep. Susan Molinari was tapped to give the convention's keynote address, while Dole's wife, Elizabeth, stole the show with her walk-around talk to the delegates.But what Dole does to reach out to women voters during the campaign will almost certainly have a greater bearing on his prospects this November than the cameos of women leaders on the podium.

The gender gap in politics is nothing new. In the 1992 presidential election, for example, Democrat Bill Clinton won 45 percent of the women's vote, compared with 37 percent for George Bush and 17 percent for independent candidate Ross Perot, according to Voter News Service. Clinton's advantage among men was much narrower: 41 percent to 38 percent, with Perot taking 21 percent.

Democrats say it's not surprising that Dole is having a difficult time appealing to women, given his opposition in Congress to measures such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and the 1994 crime bill, which included a provision to help combat violence against women.

And despite all the efforts the Republicans made to reach out and preach inclusiveness at their convention, women were greatly outnumbered at the San Diego event. Only one-third of the delegates were women, according to a survey by the Associated Press.

"I tried to fight for more women," said Minnesota delegate Evelyn Axdahl, the state's national comitteewoman.

Many GOP women say Republicans are slowly making progress at engaging women in party activities.

It's a lot better than it was in years past, according to New Hampshire Republican National Committeewoman Ruth Griffin, who was in San Diego to attend her fifth Republican convention.

Observers and even some Republicans say Dole's opposition to abortion and the perception some women have that the party is intolerant on the issue have been key contributors to his problems in appealing to women voters.

"The political reality is that it's that position (opposition to abortion rights) that puts us behind in the polls and gives us a gender gap," said Ann Stone, who heads Republicans for Choice, an organization aimed at electing abortion rights supporters to office and changing the party's platform on abortion. "It is not a matter of policy about abortion. It's about the politics of how you view women in society."

Stone and other abortion rights Republicans say those on the other side of the issue did not do the party any favors by rebuffing efforts to add tolerance language to the party's abortion plank. Instead, delegates approved a staunchly conservative platform, similar to those approved at GOP conventions since 1984, that calls for a constitutional amendment banning abortion and urges the appointment of judges who oppose abortion.

"We know the gender gap is a big problem for Dole," said Glenda Greenwald, founder and head of the WISH List, an organization aimed at electing to Congress Republican women who support abortion rights. "The rigidity with which the Republican Party has conducted itself has set a tone that many women don't care for."

But other abortion rights Republicans said that some of the policies forwarded by the GOP majority in Congress also sent an intolerant tone that turned off women.

"There were too many votes on abortion in the 104th Congress," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md. "People are uncomfortable with the topic."

But GOP abortion opponents, who far outnumbered Republicans who support abortion rights at the convention, say recent elections counter the view that an anti-abortion stance hurts their party.

They point to the Republicans' big gains in the 1994 elections, when most of the GOP candidates who were elected to Congress opposed abortion. They also highlight the primary victories this month in Georgia, Kansas, Colorado and Michigan of U.S. Senate candidates who oppose abortion.

"It's a winning issue for Republicans," said Neal Breitbarth, a delegate from Minnesota.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)