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Canned compassion just doesn't cut it

Posted: Thursday, February 03, 2000

AMHERST, N.H. - Anybody around here seen a compassionate conservative? He was here just a few days ago, up on the platform in the high school gym, giving a stump speech right out of the handbook on ``How to Woo Women Voters.''

George W. was talking about ``good moms and dads'' and the ``gap of hope'' and ``armies of compassion.'' I heard him use the word ``heart'' 14 times in 20 minutes. I counted the word ``hope'' until I ran out of fingers and ``kids'' till I ran out of toes.

For months there's been this aura about Bush: he was the one Republican who could reverse the gender gap that had put Clinton in the White House. He had the patter down, the Dad lingo perfected. He sounded sympathetic to the single moms and worried about the school kids. He could make the conservative case for women's votes.

But the folks I talked to in this high-tech southern tier of the state went into the gym undecided and came out unconvinced. In the end, the compassion sounded canned. In the very end, canned compassion lost to character, a compassionate conservative lost to a passionate conservative: Bush lost to McCain.

Of course, McCain spent 65 days up here and Bush spent 36. New Hampshire folks expect to be wooed. Maybe the biggest gap wasn't by gender but by attention. But this primary state, which is often dismissed as a state of anomaly, left a few tips about what the campaign will look like next fall.

For one thing, some 61 percent of the voters who picked up a Democratic ballot in New Hampshire were women. Compare that to 42 percent of those who voted Republican.

More importantly, this is one primary state where independents play a huge role, deciding up to the last moment among the candidates of both parties. That makes it more like the November election. George W. not only lost Republican women, he lost independent women. The independent women who voted Republican chose McCain 59 to 24.

This has got to shake up all the Republicans rallying around the crown prince. McCain, like Bradley, had an edge with male voters. The war hero and the sports hero have both passed some essential male test. But among women?

It shakes up the assumption - of both parties - that Bush would be the right guy to give the Democrats a run for the women's vote. Until now, pollsters who play match-up games have done comparisons between Bush and Gore (Sweetheart get me rewrite!) and found that George was more appealing to women voters than Al.

In January, a national poll by the Pew Research Center gave Bush a crucial seven-point lead among women. A Democratic pollster, Celinda Lake, pointed out that this year's pivotal group isn't ``soccer moms'' but what she labels ``cross-pressured women.'' And they were also favoring Bush ``pretty solidly.''

Lake's ``cross-pressured women'' are the ones who agree with Democrats on the issues but have been turned off mightily by Clinton scandals. Those voters are up for grabs.

We still don't see a clear way to the fall election. Among the Democrats, it's not yet certain if Gore carries more of Clinton's stardust or his tarnish. Nor is it certain if Bradley's offering a fresh start or a Princeton seminar on the philosophy of leadership.

McCain has struck the chord of character with the promise ``you will always hear the truth from me no matter what.'' But how long till the bloom is off that rose? On the morning after his victory, the soldier was asked to tell us what he really thinks of the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina Capitol. ``The truth is that folks in South Carolina don't want outsiders to tell them what to do.'' The Truth?

Nevertheless, George W. Bush leaves New Hampshire grateful that he travels with his feather pillow. He's got something to fall back on.

The governor of Texas came here a-courting. He used the language of love, hope, heart, dreams. He was heavy on words, light on proposals.

It reminded linguistics professor Deborah Tannen of something out of her book, ``You Just Don't Understand,'' on male-female communication: ``When a woman tells a man about a problem, she doesn't want him to fix it; she just wants him to listen and let her know he understands.'' But there is, Tannen groaned, a difference between ``what we want from our lovers and what we want from our leaders.''

Not to worry. One lesson from the pre-Valentine's Day primary is that this year women are looking for more than sweet talk.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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