John Kerry will not become president without women. He is now even with President Bush among female voters, but to win the White House, he needs to be a better ladies' man than Mr. Bush.
However, in the first presidential election since the Sept. 11 attacks, when security moms have replaced soccer moms, the political landscape looks less favorable for Democrats with women voters.
"The security mom includes the soccer moms, but also the waitress moms, the blue-collar women," said Kellyanne Conway, president and CEO of The Polling Company.
"Although they have no demographics in common ... what these women have in common is two things: they look at the world through the prism of their children, and security and safety is the most important thing to them."
Soccer moms were white-collar suburban women. Conway said what happened is that about two years ago, "she" issues were replaced by "we" issues.
The so-called "she" issues like Social Security, healthcare and education – which traditionally favor Democrats – are less important to women this year, according to Conway's polling, than the "we" issues like war and the economy.
In the 2000 presidential race, Democratic candidate Al Gore had an 11-point edge over Mr. Bush among women; Mr. Bush was favored among men by the same 11-point margin.
Kerry has just a one-point edge over Mr. Bush among female voters, 46 to 45 percent, according to the latest CBS News poll, released Thursday. He needs at least a double-digit advantage with women to win in November.
To do this, Kerry attempted to soften his image with an appearance this week on "Live With Regis and Kelly." Then, in a speech in Florida, he said that President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security would particularly hurt women because they live longer.
Though the CBS poll shows Kerry gaining some ground with women (last week Mr. Bush led him by 7 points), he'll need to focus even more on female voters in the campaign's final five weeks.
While about 60 percent of female voters typically lean Democratic, Kerry's deficit among women is more than issue-based. To Conway, a Republican, what's occurring is that "women don't like erratic men."
President Bush's portrayal of Kerry as a "flip-flopper" has marred the Democratic nominee with women. While 50 percent of women believe Mr. Bush says what he believes, only 33 percent say the same about Kerry, according to the CBS poll (which interviewed 428 men and 645 women.)
"The one thing that all women lost on Sept. 11 was a sense of control," Conway said. "They feel like it doesn't matter what neighborhood they live in, what plane they take, what school they send their kids to or how much disposable income they have. None of it matters if your entire sense of control, order and tidiness can be upset by circumstances beyond your control."
The poll showed that more women are confident in Mr. Bush's ability to make the right decision in protecting the country against terrorism. Forty-five percent of women said they had a lot of confidence in Mr. Bush, while only 27 percent said the same about Kerry.
The president of the Feminist Majority, Eleanor Smeal, argues that in key swing states the political gender gap remains.
A Zogby poll, conducted Sept. 13-17, showed Kerry has a 10-20-point lead among women in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota. But the same poll in other key battleground states – New Hampshire, West Virginia, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Florida – found Kerry's advantage was a mere 2 to 8.5 points.
Smeal said the election will turn on the female vote, but she questions how much the "decisive leadership" mantra of the Bush campaign has gotten through to women.
"Yes, we are at war, but some people think that the war is going in the wrong direction," Smeal said. "But to be resolute, a lot is dependent on if people think it is going in the wrong direction or right direction."
In 2000, President Bush targeted his "compassionate conservative" slogan to white-collar women, the so-called soccer moms. This year, Mr. Bush has barely mentioned that theme, instead portraying himself as a strong leader making tough decisions in hard times.
"Women care about the war on terrorism," Conway said, because it deeply affects their children's future. "Women don't like the past. They like to think tomorrow is a better day."
That's especially true of married women, 62 percent of whom went to the polls in 2000, compared to only 43 percent of single women.
"It's not because they are angry or apathetic but because they don't own homes, they don't have kids in the public schools," Conway said. "They aren't in the tax bracket where they have to worry so much about fiscal policy, and now everybody feels there is a vested interest in who runs the country."
She added that "when Kerry speaks about Iraq and Vietnam and George W. Bush speaks of the war on terror and homeland security," it's the president's message that resonates with women.
"The need to regain a sense of control, security and safety among women," Conway added, "has trumped every other major issue."