WASHINGTON - Cynthia Moore - single mother, moderate Democrat - is the living embodiment of one of Sen. John Kerry's biggest challenges in the presidential race. There are things she doesn't like about President Bush, she says, but the president will get her vote Nov. 2 because she thinks he'll do a better job of protecting her two daughters.
"Terrorism is something that scares me," said Ms. Moore, 34, of Watkins Glen, N.Y. "I like the security of knowing that if I was to get on a plane with my little girls, we would be a lot safer."
Mr. Kerry's strong performance in the first presidential debate did him no good with Ms. Moore - her mind made up, she didn't even watch.
She is just one face behind polling numbers showing that Mr. Bush has made big strides among female voters in recent weeks. The Pew Research Center, for example, showed Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry running about even among women in a poll taken Sept. 22-26, before the first of three presidential debates, compared with a 10-point advantage for Mr. Kerry in August.
Both campaigns are polling furiously this weekend to see how the first debate changed things.
Democracy Corps, a group led by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and strategist James Carville, said its survey of 1,318 likely voters who watched the debate showed Mr. Kerry's favorable ratings rose by 15 points among college-educated women and 11 points among older women, two groups that had moved away from him since the GOP convention.
All sides agree that Mr. Kerry's prospects are doomed if he doesn't regain ground with female voters, who tend to make up their minds later than men.
"It's just simply this: In order for Kerry to win, he's got to carry women," says Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew center.
Democratic pollster Doug Schoen, not affiliated with any campaign, sets the bar even higher: "If he doesn't win women by about 10 points, he will not be elected president."
Recent presidential elections have displayed a "gender gap" in which women, who make up about 52 percent of the electorate, lean more Democratic than do men.
In 1996, President Clinton beat Bob Dole by 16 points among women and broke even among men as he easily won. In the neck-and-neck 2000 vote, Al Gore had an 11-point advantage over Mr. Bush among female voters while men favored Mr. Bush by about the same margin.
This time, the gender gap still exists, but the whole scale seems to have shifted in Mr. Bush's favor in recent weeks, in part simply because Mr. Kerry did more poorly across the board. An AP-Ipsos poll taken Sept. 20-22, for example, showed men favoring Mr. Bush by a 57-40 margin while women were about evenly split.