The Battle For 'Soccer Moms';
Reassured Pa. women find strength in Kerry
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday October 13, 2004
ROSEMONT, Pa. - Betty McCue considers herself a lifelong Republican. She remembers casting her first vote for Dwight D. Eisenhower and working the phones for George H.W. Bush.
"He was my kind of Republican," said McCue, who invited me into her home outside Philadelphia. "He was smart, careful and reasonable about everything - war, the economy, respecting people's privacy on social issues. The son isn't. He doesn't measure up, not to his father or John Kerry."
In a "swing" suburb that both parties see as the key to carrying this crucial state, McCue and other Republicans - especially women - remain the biggest frustration here for George W. Bush and the best hope for Democrat Kerry. For now, based on recent polls and knocking on doors with canvassers from both parties, I believe Kerry has the advantage in these suburbs and thus in a state he absolutely must win.
This isn't certain. The Republicans, who seem to have failed in their effort to transform socially sensitive "soccer moms" into terrorist-frightened "security moms," still have gambits to play. Bush could recoup in tonight's final debate. And the GOP boasts a strong get-out- the-vote operation, the absence of which in 2000 may have caused Bush's four-point Pennsylvania deficit.
But Kerry's performance in the first two debates did more than jazz up party activists.
The strength and command he showed helped reassure many women. They came away believing Kerry could pro-tect their families. And they recalled how much more comfortable Democrats have made them feel since 1992, when Bill Clinton wooed them on social issues.
Kerry even showed he has something over Clinton and certainly Al Gore. Although Clinton's charm helped him sell his policies, Kerry at first suffered the way Gore did in seeming weaker and more aloof. But Clinton, the draft dodger, might have had a hard time convincing many supporters that he could be a wartime president. Not Kerry, the war hero. Once he got a chance to stand head-to-head with Bush, Kerry came across as a bona fide tough guy.
For suburban women, more than for men, Bush's mishandling of the Iraq war seems an especially big turnoff. "I know a lot of moms who are concerned about terrorism," said Michele Hunn of Villanova, a 41-year-old mother of three. "But I also care about stem-cell research and the environment and a woman's right to choose. And I feel less safe since we went into Iraq after the president didn't tell the truth about weapons of mass destruction. I see John Kerry as clearly more trustworthy."
So it shouldn't be a surprise that the Democrat has surged to a lead that even GOP operatives concede is at least 10 points in the Philadelphia suburbs. It's a reflection not just of Bush or Kerry's stature but of recent political trends in many Republican-leaning suburbs.
If no party owns these encampments along the Crabgrass frontier, Democrats have been given a long-term lease since 1992. That's the year the strident conservative rhetoric at the GOP convention scared away many moderates, and Clinton made the suburbs safe for his party with a more centrist appeal.
But in 2000 Bush shrewdly ran as a "compassionate conservative," and while the message didn't play well in the Philadelphia suburbs, which Al Gore carried by about 10 points, Bush did manage to split the suburban vote nation-wide.
Kerry's challenge outside Philadelphia and other big cities has been to consolidate the Clinton-Gore gains by run-ning as a moderate. But it turned out to be harder than expected because of doubts about his character and centrist cre-dentials, due to mischievously effective attack ads, and because some Republican supporters of Clinton and Gore were leery about changing administrations in mid-war. Kerry appears to have turned that around here.
Bush's 2004 strategy was to bring back more Republican women by running as a hybrid "compassionate com-mander in chief." If that didn't work, then he would try Plan B - winning by turning out more of his conservative base and hope that the negative tone of the race would keep many moderates home. The Bush approach hasn't been a total failure. "I feel like he is standing strong for what he believes in," said Monique Bertrando, 36, of West Chester, who showed up at Chester County GOP headquarters for Bush lawn signs. "He makes me feel safer."
Outside Philadelphia, Bush still is trying to cut into Kerry's lead among women. He hasn't completely gone to Plan B, although elements are in play. For instance, volunteers are pushing hard to bring Christian conservatives to the polls.
But Bush is spending money on what could be a sleeper issue in the Philadelphia suburbs: rising medical malprac-tice insurance rates. It was an issue Bertrando and other women brought up without me raising it. One powerful Bush ad features a female obstetrician talking about how high rates - which she claims are caused by "frivolous" lawsuits - have forced her to close her practice. One local hospital already has stopped delivering babies. This is something women of-ten talk about.
Although there's evidence to support claims that rising rates have little to do with lawsuits - frivolous or not - Penn-sylvanians overwhelmingly believe it to be true. Democrats, including trial lawyer John Edwards, have decided not even to argue the point. They are choosing to protect this weak flank by advocating tort reforms.
Can Bush turn soccer moms into malpractice moms? It may be his only chance here, especially if the war is seen as going badly and Bush is seen as a social conservative - and if Kerry can continue to look like the tough and sensitive type.