By SHANNON McCAFFREY
President Bush’s once-solid relationship with Southern women is on the rocks. "I think history will show him to be the worst president since Ulysses S. Grant," said Barbara Knight, a self-described Republican since birth and the mother of three. "He’s been an embarrassment." In the heart of Dixie, comparisons to Grant, a symbol of the Union, is the worst sort of insult, especially from a Macon woman who voted for Bush in 2000 but turned away in 2004.
In recent years, Southern women have been some of Bush’s biggest fans, defying the traditional gender gap in which women have preferred Democrats to Republicans. Bush secured a second term due in large part to support from 54 percent of Southern female voters while women nationally favored Democrat John Kerry, 51-48 percent.
"In 2004, you saw an utter collapse of the gender gap in the South," said Karen Kaufmann, a professor of government at the University of Maryland who has studied women’s voting patterns. White Southern women liked Bush because "he spoke their religion and he spoke their values."
Now, anger over the Iraq war and frustration with the country’s direction have taken a toll on the president’s popularity and stirred dissatisfaction with the Republican-held Congress.
Republicans on the ballot this November have reason to worry. A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that three out of five Southern women surveyed said they planned to vote for a Democrat in the midterm elections. With control of the Senate and House in the balance, such a seismic shift could have dire consequences for the GOP.
Democrats need to gain 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate to seize control.
In a sign of how crucial races in the South will be to the GOP national strategy, Bush was traveling to Georgia on Thursday to help former Rep. Max Burns raise money in his bid to unseat Democratic Rep. John Barrow. The president also will give a speech in Atlanta.
Knight lives in another congressional district considered competitive. Republicans hope to oust Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall, whose district was redrawn by the GOP-controlled Georgia Legislature to make it more conservative.
Voters like Knight could prove to be spoilers. The 66-year-old real estate agent doesn’t particularly like Marshall, a hawkish Democrat and former Army Ranger, but she said she’ll vote for him because she likes his conservative Republican opponent, former Rep. Mac Collins, even less.
"I’m going to go for the moderate, and these days that tends to be Democrats," Knight said.
Sandy Rubin, a high school teacher in Macon, voted for Bush and said she’s also likely to vote for Marshall. Rubin said the GOP’s focus on issues that appeal to social conservatives, such as gay marriage and abortion, have turned her off.
"I care about job security and education. The things I hear the Republicans emphasizing in their campaigns are not things that affect me or my family," said the 39-year-old mother of two.
The movement of some Southern women away from the Republican Party tracks with national poll results showing that women have become more disillusioned with the war and were more likely than men to list the conflict as the important issue facing the country.
Nationally, the AP-Ipsos poll found that only 28 percent of women approve of Bush’s handling of the war. Bush did better in the South, but only slightly — just 32 percent of women in the region said they approve of his handling of the war.
"I never did understand why we went into Iraq and didn’t instead clean up the mess in Afghanistan first," Knight said.
Teresa Cranford, 39, also of Macon, said her support for Bush was lukewarm in 2004, but she ultimately voted for him so he could finish the job in Iraq. As the death toll has risen, so has her discomfort.
"I’m a mother and that makes me think differently about it," Cranford said.
Lynn Hamilton, 44, said she still supports Bush even though her backing for the ongoing war has waned.
"As a mother you worry, ‘Am I going to lose my baby boy?’" said the Gray, Ga., resident. "A mother’s view about war is often going to be a lot different than dad’s is."
Neither Cranford nor Hamilton has decided how they plan to vote in the midterm elections, although neither ruled out voting for a Democrat.
"I’m not a straight party-line Republican anymore," Cranford said.
Still, some Southern women remain stalwart supporters of the president and the Republican Party. At a watermelon festival in Chickamauga, in the mountains of northwest Georgia, substitute teacher Clydeen Tomanio said she remains committed to the party she’s called home for 43 years.
"There are some people, and I’m one of them, that believe George Bush was placed where he is by the Lord," Tomanio said. "I don’t care how he governs, I will support him. I’m a Republican through and through."
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press