KRISTEN BREITWEISER, LIKE HER HUSBAND RON, VOTED for George W. Bush in 2000. Far from being any kind of activist, she didn't know her Congressman's name before Sept. 11, 2001, the day her husband died on the 92th floor of the World Trade Center's Tower 2. But she knows her way around politics now. It has taken her three years to get on an airplane, but she did it on Sept. 22, the day before the state of Iowa started accepting absentee ballots. To mark the occasion, the John Kerry campaign was holding a women-and-security rally in Davenport. Kerry was nursing a cold, so John Edwards filled in, but it was Breitweiser who took center stage before the crowd of more than 600 in a sweltering hall. As she has on countless talk shows, she described her fight to get the White House to appoint a commission to investigate the 9/11 attacks. Bush, she said, agreed only after the Senate voted 90 to 8 in favor of it. "We gave every opportunity to President Bush to do the right thing," said Breitweiser, a high-profile widow whose presence on the campaign trail is designed to project the message that women can count on Democrats to protect their kids.
The security moms are this political season's cartoon action figures, the vital voters whom Kerry and Bush are supposedly chasing in the final weeks of the race. These heirs of the soccer moms have provided a handy explanation for how Kerry lost his lead this summer, when terrorism alerts went back up to orange and the scarring images of the school siege in Beslan, Russia, settled into the suburban psyche. In recent presidential elections women have leaned Democratic by at least 8 percentage points, and after his Boston convention, they favored Kerry by 14. But in recent weeks that margin has vanished, and some polls have shown Bush pulling ahead even among women. So the notion that fear of terrorism was driving normally Democratic women into the Bush camp provided the theorists with a story line and led the Kerry camp to seek out allies like the 9/11 widows.
The reasons behind the shifts in women's views, however, are much more complicated than that, as is Kerry's challenge in winning back female support. Women overall are less likely than men to cite security as a top issue. Women worry more about domestic issues like jobs, where Democrats traditionally have an advantage. The archetypal security mom--a white, married, suburban woman concerned about her family's safety--is not really a swing voter anyway. She has been in Bush's camp from the start, and is more likely to cite his faith and values than his national-security policy as the reason. "I don't even know what [security mom] means," says a senior Kerry adviser. "Is it someone who cares about security more than anything else? That's very few women. Is it somebody who cares about security? That's almost every woman and every man."