Not much separates New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman from New York Rep. Susan Molinari except the Hudson River. Both women hail from well-heeled, highly connected northeastern Republican families that couple fiscal moderation with liberal views on social issues. Both are on the Republican fast track; conventional politicians who worry about whether Republicans can appeal to women head their way. Both receive high praise from Bob Dole.
Mr. Dole's fixation on the gender gap, that gap between how men and women think about Republicans, led him to select Gov. Whitman as one of the two temporary chairmen of San Diego's Republican National Convention, and her 38-year-old neighbor, Rep. Molinari, to give his highly symbolic keynote address at the convention. Mr. Dole was so eager to announce his selection of the perky Molinari on national TV that he surprised both her and his staff by blurting out the news on the Larry King show. He said of Ms. Molinari, "She's dynamic, she's young, she's bright...."
Though the Whitman and Molinari selections have earned Bob Dole praise from some media pundits and liberal Republicans, they have undermined Mr. Dole's support within the core constituencies of the party. "We are concerned with a list of choices we see candidate Dole making that seem to make it difficult for pro-life activists to support his campaign," said Paula Govers, press secretary for Concerned Women for America.
The Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed, who many think saved the Dole candidacy during the primaries, noted that "Senator Dole's choice of Susan Molinari as keynote speaker of the Republican National Convention could well be perceived among religious and social conservatives as the senator moving in the wrong direction."
Mr. Dole's Whitman-Molinari direction is helping to make abortion an issue that won't go away for him. During the 1996 House debate on fiscal spending, Rep. Molinari joined about a fifth of House Republicans to preserve federal funding of key family-planning programs in the Department of Health and Human Services. "Family planning works to save lives," she said. "We must give poor women a place to go." Rep. Molinari flunks every pro-life voting test on the Christian Coalition's voting guide except for one. She voted to ban partial-birth abortions.
Gov. Whitman seems determined to rob Senator Dole of the issue of the partial-birth abortion veto. She defended President Clinton's veto of the ban and has never been shy about announcing her complete and unqualified support for the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.
Although Mrs. Whitman may be admired by high-ranking Republicans in Washington, she has her critics back in New Jersey. In pastoral Lawrenceville, Robert George, a Princeton University constitutional law professor, notes that many are asking questions about whether the governor's 30 percent tax cut may have forced hikes in local taxes, including, most notably, property taxes.
But Mr. George's most pointed criticism focuses on the governor's abortion stance. No beltway Democrat has more vocally supported President Clinton's pro-abortion maneuvers, including his veto of the partial-birth abortion bill, than this Republican governor. "My concern is that [she] is fundamentally concerned with protecting economic privilege," says Mr. George, "and there is no regard for morality and sanctity of human life. It's all concern with protecting privilege."
It is the issue of taxes that bothers Plainfield High School vice principal Andrea Berke-a long-time Democrat. She says the city cannot afford summer school and she blames the governor. "We lost $2 million this year in funding and wealthy districts gained money," she says while sitting in her office in the heart of impoverished Plainfield.
A couple of hours down the road from Gov. Whitman's upper-class New Jersey home, across the Hudson River, travelers emerge in Rep. Molinari's Staten Island District. Here, her grandfather ruled local politics, and her father, pro-lifer Guy Molinari, occupied her very seat in the House of Representatives from 1981 to 1990, when he resigned to become Staten Island's borough president, a move that forced a special election that his daughter easily won on name recognition alone. Prior to that, her experience included service with the Republican National Committee and as the only Republican on a 35-member New York City Council.
During her time in the House, Rep. Molinari has exhibited poise, a silver tongue, and fierce support of the Republican leadership, coming to the defense at different times of both Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, whom she claims to adore. She was the first high-ranking New York politician to endorse the now-73 year-old senator.
Ms. Molinari's loyalty to the House leadership paid off. In 1995 she challenged Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida for the post of Republican Conference vice chair. It was a clear choice: a female "moderate" from the big-city North against a Southern, staunch conservative male. Ms. Molinari won. About that same time Ms. Molinari married fellow New York Republican Rep. Bill Paxon. She gave birth to their first child this spring.
In the weeks until the convention, pro-life Republicans are waiting to see whether Ms. Molinari and Mrs. Whitman are just window dressing, or whether they signal a real change in Senator Dole's thinking. The test will be the vice-presidential nominee.