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Archive for Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Gender politics at play in race

October 30, 2002

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— In Texas, it has become political legend.

After a candidate forum during the 1990 governor's race, Republican Clayton Williams, in a moment of anger, refused to shake hands with Democrat Ann Richards.

Williams' act was seen as especially ungentlemanly because of Richards' gender. And he eventually lost the election.

Does gender still make a difference when a man and woman are running for the same office?

For an answer, you need look no further than the 2002 race for Kansas governor.

The gender dynamics between Democrat Kathleen Sebelius and Republican Tim Shallenburger follow a pattern that is seen in campaigns nationwide, according to Mary Banwart, a Kansas University professor of communications studies whose expertise is gender in politics.

In joint appearances with Sebelius, Shallenburger has been careful to avoid appearing to attack her. Instead, Shallenburger has allowed his campaign spokesmen or other surrogates to do that job. His negative ads are narrated by women. His recorded telephone calls feature a woman's voice.

"Shallenburger is using good strategies to attack her, and he has to attack her because he is behind in the polls," Banwart said.

A recent ad, in which Shallenburger's wife is the main speaker, was "an attempt to soften some of the sting that negative ads have left with people," Banwart said.

At the same time, Sebelius has been aggressive in fending off attacks, blaming Shallenburger for negative campaigning and launching negative ads of her own.

"What we find is that when women run against men, they are not afraid to run attack ads. And they will attack more because there are some stereotypes they still face. Women are still not perceived as tough, and this is one way they can illustrate, 'I am tough,'" Banwart said.

Sebelius has enjoyed significant advantages in pre-election polls, especially among female voters.

Banwart said that was because Sebelius was seen as the "education candidate."

"Education has remained a top priority issue for female voters. That issue has solidified with her," she said.

And Shallenburger's no-tax message may be translated by women as a message that schools could suffer, Banwart said.

Both campaigns denied they were doing anything based on gender.

"We haven't changed our message from the primary," said Bob Murray, a spokesman for Shallenburger. "We stick to the issues: education, taxes. It's a Republican against a Democrat, not a man against a woman."

The Sebelius camp expressed the same sentiment.

"We have been focusing on things important to her and the people of Kansas: health care, education and jobs and the economy. We would have done that no matter who we were running against, male or female," said Nicole Corcoran-Basso, a Sebelius spokeswoman.

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