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Obstacles beset women candidates

WASHINGTON — Women candidates face a tough time convincing voters, especially men and older people, that they have the toughness, decisiveness and background to serve in executive offices such as governor, new research suggests.

The growing success of women running for Congress and state legislatures in recent years has eluded female candidates for governor. One of the problems women face winning election to executive office is the comparatively low number of female role models in executive positions, both in business and politics, the research said.

"Voters sometime balk at accepting women in the executive's role," said GOP pollster Linda DiVall. "It's very important that women candidates have their agenda in place. A woman candidate who has to change her position will be seen as a waffle queen. Men are seen as doing what's necessary."

In the 50 states, four women occupy the governor's office — in Arizona, Delaware, Montana and New Hampshire. In the last three decades, 53 women have been nominated for gubernatorial office, but only a dozen have been elected.

Men and older voters were more likely to prefer a male candidate for a top office such as governor, the research suggested. Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters were more likely to include gender as a factor. Republicans and Republican-leaning voters were more likely to vote along party lines, regardless of gender.

Blue-collar workers and senior Democratic men were less likely to support female candidates, adding more obstacles for Democratic women. The researchers suggested that candidates should aggressively court voter groups that are more likely to support women, such as younger women, younger voters in general and more educated voters.

Women with experience as state attorney general or lieutenant governor were seen as very qualified to be governor by two-thirds of those polled, while female executives of companies were seen as very qualified for the job by just over a third. Focus groups suggested that male candidates are given more credit for their leadership experience in business.

"Voters are more intrigued by male candidates who are outsiders, chief executive officers," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "They are wary of women who are outsiders."

Lake said the greatest challenge for women candidates is to demonstrate "toughness" in a way voters are comfortable with.

"If you're too strong, you're labeled a bad word," she said, quoting a woman candidate who was interviewed. "If you're not strong enough, you get run over."

The polling suggested that female candidates have an advantage over men on issues such as social programs, improving education and putting the interest of people first. But first they will have to address voter concerns on several levels about their ability to be in charge.

Among the findings, female candidates must:

—Build a solid political career that includes offices demonstrating executive ability.

—Demonstrate financial expertise.

—Show an ability to be both tough and compassionate.

—Be willing to take credit. Voters must be able to recall past successful efforts.

—Show an ability to raise money, an essential factor in a high-profile race for governor.

The extensive research was conducted over the last year by pollsters Lake and DiVall as well as Democratic strategist Mary Hughes. It included an analysis of Voter News Service exit polls, a series of focus groups, interviews with candidates and campaign managers and a poll of 1,375 likely voters. The poll, conducted in May, has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The research was sponsored by the Barbara Lee Foundation, an organization based in Boston and founded in 1999 funds a number of projects intended to promote women's political prospects.

The resulting handbook is to be mailed to women lawmakers and state officeholders around the country.