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Thursday, May 20, 2004 01:54 pm

The estrogen factor

Sherry is just a regular gal. Like most Americans, the married 30-something would rather watch Survivor on CBS than a bunch of talking heads discuss Washington politics on CNN. And yet, she has a photo of John Edwards and his wife stuck on her refrigerator. Oh, except she's carefully grafted her own face onto Elizabeth Edwards' body.

Let's just say Sherry really, really likes John Edwards. And she's not alone.

John Edwards was the rare candidate who actually got more of his support from women than men in many of the Democratic primaries. He also got more of his money, in both dollar amounts and percentage, from contributors identified as homemakers or housewives. In fact, North Carolina women put Edwards in the Senate -- he owed his upset victory over incumbent Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth in 1998 to a whopping 16-point gender gap.

The secret of Edwards' estrogen appeal goes far beyond his pretty face. Unlike NASCAR dads, women voters tend not to be too impressed with the kind of masculine appeal that involves swaggering across an aircraft carrier. They tend to favor a more subtle kind of power -- the kind that fuses strength with compassion and charisma.

It's why Meredith, a pretty photographer with little enthusiasm for politics or politicians, makes an exception for Edwards. "He is the only candidate who seemed human," she says. "I felt like he actually cared for real human beings, instead of talking about them as policy issues or talking points."

And that ability to connect is exactly why Edwards would make a perfect running mate for John Kerry. He supplies the two resources Kerry needs most: charisma and vision.

 

Watching Kerry ponderously mumble his way through the campaign trail is sufficient to send even the most optimistic liberal diving for the nearest spider hole. Here's Kerry on how he would handle the gruesome evidence of torture in Abu Ghraib:

"I'd want to get the facts and hold the people accountable and make the appropriate statements, take appropriate responsibility.... If that includes apologizing for the behavior of the soldiers when that happens, then we ought to do that."

That's not running to the center, that's running yourself right out of town.

Let's face it, John Kerry could use a little help. Sure, John Edwards can't raise the dead or walk on water, but he can deliver the one constituency most likely to help Kerry win: women.

What Kerry needs is not someone who will deliver one battleground state or another. Nor does he need to further butch up his candidacy. That whole "band of brothers" thing is pretty testosterone-driven as it is.

Every four years, the Democratic Party desperately tries to out-macho the GOP in a vain attempt to convince working class white men to vote for its candidate. In the '80s, for example, the Democrats were busy courting the so-called Reagan Democrats, the same demographic that has now been re-labeled "NASCAR dads."

Well, here's a news flash: A person who has not voted for a single Democratic nominee in 20-plus years is, in fact, a Republican. Only 22 percent of white guys identify themselves as Democrats. As a voting block, white men represent 39 percent of the electorate. As Charles Cook, a Washington-based political analyst, once observed, "NASCAR dads haven't voted Democratic in a presidential election since Moby Dick was a guppy." It's time to stop spending all the hard-earned money raised from loyal Democrats on wooing loyal Republicans.

 

What John Kerry needs, in fact, is the estrogen vote. Women actually vote more than men (61 percent versus 58 percent in 2000). Women are also more likely to vote Democratic in presidential elections. The 11-percent gender gap in 2000 was the widest ever, as both married and single women overwhelmingly preferred Al Gore to Bush.

Gore didn't win the White House because he did little to inspire his own party faithful. A better turnout among single women in Florida and the liberals wouldn't have been counting chads.

Unfortunately, John Kerry isn't doing any better in the inspiration department, thanks to his obsessive desire to out-macho George Bush. When he's not putting his audiences to sleep (Daily Show host Jon Stewart described his big education speech as the "Leave No Child Awake" initiative), Kerry talks incessantly about his military record.

Instead of getting mired in the same old machismo war with the GOP, Kerry ought to be focusing on shoring up his support among women. In the 2002 mid-term elections, the so-called soccer moms swung towards the GOP in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg also points to another statistic that represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the Dems. While Kerry beats Bush by 51 to 44 percent among college-educated women, he is losing out by 9 points among women who didn't attend college. Those women -- married with children -- used to vote Democratic but have swayed toward the GOP in recent years.

But even female supporters of Kerry agree that his women-friendly policies may not be enough to inspire a large turnout.

 

There is no one better equipped to help Kerry with that task than John Edwards. It became clear during the primaries that while there is little difference between the two men on the issues, there is an enormous gulf in their ability to articulate their vision.

Edwards is a man who can talk. In the words of columnist Kathleen White, "He can talk lawyer; he can talk populism; and he can talk back yard." Edwards' "Two Americas" speech -- described by James Carville as the best stump speech in the primaries -- encapsulates just why women find him irresistible. Both his message and his style are warm, engaging, upbeat, dynamic -- and personal.

Writing for Salon, Peter Dizikes reveals just why Edwards would be so effective in speaking directly to that non-college educated mother or single woman struggling to pay her bills: "You can always hear the crowd's approval when Edwards says he wants to crack down on 'predatory lenders, payday lenders, and these credit cards companies that are fleecing the American people, every single day.' "

Edwards works the same kind of magic with every other issue. It's not about healthcare but about being able to care for a sick child. It's not about Social Security but about "working middle-class families" who are "saving nothing." His populist message -- couched in carefully inclusive rhetoric -- is bound to echo with unmarried women. As sole breadwinners of their family, single women's highest priorities are healthcare, employment, education, job security and retirement benefits. Certainly not the candidates' military records.

It doesn't take a leap of imagination to see just how easily someone like Edwards could make the war in Iraq about saving the lives of our soldiers and keeping our families safe at home. That's a message most women can get behind, including so-called "security moms" who are worried about terrorism.

If there are any doubts about whether Edwards' affirming style appeals to women, just talk to Oprah. In survey after survey, women non-voters cite a sense of powerlessness as an important reason for their alienation. A running mate who connects directly to these women and can convince them that he cares may be exactly what Kerry needs to counter the NASCAR dad vote.

The women's vote will decide who wins the popular vote in the 2004 election, as it did in 2000. And as always, women will vote for their interests in November -- be it on healthcare, education or jobs.

The Democrats just need to give them a good reason to do so.

Also from Lakshmi Chaudhry

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