Not The Year Of The Women

IN THE YEAR AFTER THE YEAR of the Woman, women may be in for a shock. Lured by the gains they made in Congress (28 new members in 1992), a record number of women want to run for governor. According to the National Women's Political Caucus, 38 women are looking at the top job in 21 states in 1994. But they may find voters are more wary of putting women in the governor's mansion than on Capitol Hill. In two widely watched governors' races this fall, two women once given an edge by oddsmakers--Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey and Mary Sue Terry in Virginia--seem to be headed for defeat. If they lose, the result may Se read as a backlash, and, in fact, gender will not be irrelevant to the outcome. But a bigger reason will be that both candidates ran poor campaigns.

Women running for the Senate last year were seen as outsiders more likely to shake things up in Washington. Voters wanted to send a message, and they didn't worry so much about the fine-tuning. A governor's race is different. It is won or lost on issues much closer to home, and there is a higher threshold of credibility.

In New Jersey, Whitman's campaign has been distinguished by its naivete. Playing off the public uproar against Gov. Jim Florio for raising taxes, Whitman tried a Ronald Reagan rerun and proposed a 30 percent tax cut. The lost revenue could be made up by cost-savings devices, such as no longer giving free Adidas sneakers to prison inmates. A decade after Reagan, New Jersey's voters aren't buying government by apocryphal anecdote. Whitman's overpromising allowed Florio to look like a sober realist.

Whitman ran an amateurish campaign (she had to fire her brother as campaign manager) and was painted as an aristocratic dilettante. But the perception of Whitman as a lightweight may also be exacerbated by her gender. "Women cannot afford to be laughed at because their competency is in question anyway," says pollster Celinda Lake, whose surveys show that voters still associate toughness and executive ability--the qualities most prized in a governor--with men. Whitman drew more jeers when she posed as a pro-gun candidate. Campaigning at Gun-O-Rama, a huge discount gun store, she was too much the patrician matron to sound tough. At the same time, she has to fend off charges that she is a tool of the National Rifle Association.

In Virginia, Mary Sue Terry has run into the opposite problem. As state attorney general, she thought she was well positioned to take advantage of the growing revulsion against guns. But her gun control advocacy has backfired. "If a woman is against gun control, voters wonder what else she's against, and it opens up the charge that she's soft on crime," says Lake. Terry has tried hard to appeal to family values, often appearing on camera with her nieces and nephews. But single and childless at 46, she has become a target for the far right. Former Reagan aide Oliver North has campaigned for Terry's opponent by declaring the governor's mansion shouldn't be "a sterile building" but a home "where a man and his wife live, and with the laughter of their children." Republican candidate George F. Allen, son of the late Redskins football coach, has said he can't control North. Terry's only defense is to try to provoke Allen by linking him to the extreme fundamentalist positions taken by Michael Farris, the GOP's candidate for lieutenant governor who has fought the reading of Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin in public schools because they offend Christians.

As a campaigner, Terry's biggest liability is not her lack of a family but her lack of warmth. "For a woman, warmth is necessary to bridge that chasm of trust that you have to cross," says New York Rep. Susan Molinari. "Otherwise voters wonder why in the world would a woman be in this dirty game." In contrast, Terry's opponent, Allen, has come from 29 points behind largely on his carefully packaged looks and personality. A television ad shows him with his young son, mistily promising that, if elected, he will ask himself only one question: what will be good for Virginia? Sugary spots like these prompt campaign consultant James Carville to quip, "It's not the negative ads, it's the positive ads you have to worry about."

Terry also suffers from guilt by association. The Democrats have controlled the statehouse for the last 12 years, and voters think it's time for a change. The state's top Democrats--Gov. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Charles Robb--are wildly unpopular, and Virginians think so little of President Clinton that Terry hasn't invited him to campaign with her. Women took advantage of anti-incumbent fever to sweep into office in 1992. Now a woman may get swept out by the same force. Call it equal opportunity.