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Women voters hold key to victory

What a difference a few weeks makes— in a presidential race, that is.

It's enough to make one hesitate just a sliver before opening one's maw, thereby sparing oneself the embarrassment of stuffing one's own foot in it. I'm talking about the least-talked-about but most important electoral shifts this election season— the seesaw swing of women's votes.

A few conservative pundits were having themselves a grand ol' time late last month and early this, crowing over polls that showed the women's vote deserting its traditional Democratic leanings and moving into President Bush's camp.

Example number one from National Review Online's Myrna Blyth, in a late September dispatch: "Last week some Kerry supporters really had their knickers in a twist over the fast-eroding women's vote. How could it be happening? How could women dare to do the unthinkable and not favor their candidate in overwhelming numbers?

Kerry pollster Mark Mellman claimed the campaign was not especially disturbed by the reduced support from women. "I don't define it as a problem," he told the New York Times, I presume with a straight face. "I define it as an opportunity." That's a very cheery analysis by someone who certainly knows a Democratic victory is impossible without strong female support.

Even some nonpartisan journalists got caught interpreting this temporary, but surprising dip in women's support for Kerry as a possibly permanent realignment.

Since then, and more importantly since the three presidential debates, numerous polls have shown the women's vote prancing right back into its traditional position: strongly for Kerry. A survey by Democracy Corps showed women favoring Kerry 54 percent to 44 percent. That's roughly the same margin by which women favored former Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

In fairness, since the women's vote surged back toward the Democrats, a few lefties have chirped a bit too loudly, too (in my humble opinion). They claim there never was any such thing as a "security mom," this season's answer to the now so-behind-the-times "soccer mom." A security mom is defined as someone who traditionally votes Democratic, but is voting Republican since 9/11, placing more faith in the president's scorched-earth, anti-terror policies.

So what, then, explains this albeit temporary aberration? Political science Professor Philip A. Klinkner of Hamilton College wrote in Newsday: "Until his recent post-debate surge, Kerry ha(d) been running behind Gore among all voters, men as well as women.

"As Bush rose in late August and early September, he picked up about equal support from men and women. One poll showed Bush picking up six points and Kerry losing six over this period, a net swing of 12 points. Among men the swing was 12 points and among women it was 11 points — no difference."

The question from this day forward is whether Kerry will ultimately gain the few more points he desperately needs from white married women voters.

This is the wealthiest slice of the female demographic and the only group of women Bush won in 2000. The reason Kerry needs this group is to counter white male support for Bush. .

Bush also captured 61 percent of votes cast by college-educated white men and 62 percent of those with incomes in excess of $75,000. And this is not a group that's likely to give majority support back to the Democrats anytime soon.

Bonnie Erbe, TV host, writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail