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Republicans face potential hard sell to women

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After a poor showing among female voters in the 2008 presidential election, the Republican Party might again have a women problem.

Sexual misconduct accusations against Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich's treatment of his ex-wives, and harsh rhetoric during debates have raised concerns among some Republicans about the party's ability to attract women in next year's presidential race.

American women have generally favored Democratic presidential candidates for decades, but some strategists thought Republicans could take advantage of "buyer's remorse" over the bad economy in 2012 and win back women independents who helped Barack Obama win the White House in 2008.

Instead, some of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination could alienate women.

"I think the Republican party has done a disservice because it should be making more of an effort to attract female voters," said strategist Ford O'Connell, an aide to the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign in 2008.

Appealing to women voters will be particularly important in the general election fight against Obama, who won the White House in 2008 with the biggest margin ever recorded by a Democrat among female voters.

Because he was backed by 56 percent of women, Obama won the White House with only a minority, 49 percent, of the male vote. More women than men also participate in general elections. Data show that 10 million more women cast ballots in 2008 than men.

Cain has been hit by charges that he harassed women employees when he led the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, accusations he has repeatedly denied. After an allegation that he conducted a long extra-marital affair, the businessman said this week he was reassessing his campaign.

Some women have also raised questions about Gingrich, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Running as an experienced elder statesman with conservative ideas, the 68-year-old Gingrich replaced Cain as Republican front-runner last month. But he has admitted to adulterous affairs in his previous two marriages, which could put off some women.

"That does affect the level many people do trust a candidate," said Maureen Olsen, president of the Iowa Federation of Republican Women, said of Gingrich. "I think it still is an issue particularly in the more conservative parts of the party."

Cain has also been criticized for comments such as referring to Nancy Pelosi, the leading Democrat in the House of Representatives, as "Princess Nancy" during a debate.

Strategists said such talk can alienate women voters as can harsh tones on issues from immigration and abortion to Iran's nuclear policy.

"They are going to have to couch some of their positions in more friendly terms. The combative nature of some positions seems to turn off women," O'Connell said.

Studies show women generally tend to favor candidates who are seen as compromisers.

ECONOMY TRUMPS EVERYTHING, BUT...

"Women are going to care about the same issues men do in this election, and the economy is going to trump everything," said Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

However, she said Republicans will have to fight to balance their appeals to Republican primary voters, more of whom are male than female, with their pitches to women independents in the general election.

Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney rates most highly with women, and he does well against Obama in polls asking about hypothetical election matchups.

But Romney is viewed warily by some conservative Republicans for his moderate positions as governor of liberal Massachusetts from 2002 to 2006. And his position is more complicated because he has been accused of "flip-flopping" by rival Republicans and Democrats for espousing more conservative positions while wooing conservative Republican primary voters.

"He's going to have to figure out how to negotiate that in the general election," Carroll said.

Romney is the only one of the top six Republican contenders who is viewed more favorably by women than by men among party members.

His "net favorable rating" among women Republicans was 38 percent, slightly above his 35 percent rating among Republican men, according to a mid-November Gallup poll.

Cain had the biggest gender gap in the survey, taken amid the harassment allegations, with a 32 percent rating among men, versus 8 percent with women. But there were also double-digit differences for Gingrich, Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

"There's a gender gap for most of the candidates, with men more positive toward pretty much all of them than women are," Gallup managing editor Jeffrey Jones said.

Gingrich's rating was 50 percent among men and 35 percent among women, Paul's was 24 to 12 percent, and Perry was viewed positively by 22 percent of men but he was only narrowly ahead of Cain among women, at 10 percent.

Even Michele Bachmann, the sole woman in the group, lagged. The Minnesota congresswoman was seen favorably by 14 percent of women and 19 percent of men.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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