A winning way with the ladies

Inauguration - He's no pin-up and he is hardly the perfect family man, but George W has a certain so

If there was one thing we learned during the American election, it was that John Kerry was a war hero and George W Bush a daddy's boy who went AWOL during his service with the Texas Air National Guard. But summon up in your mind two pictures: one of the po-faced Kerry, who seemed to have an even longer chin in those days, addressing the Senate foreign relations committee about the atrocities in Vietnam; the other of a cocky young pilot in a military jumpsuit standing next to an airplane. Which man would you rather date?

In all seriousness, there are some who argue that the repeated juxtaposition of those two images helped Bush win over female voters. There can be no scientific proof, but I think they are on to something. Others say Kerry was like the dreary first husband you dumped; Bush, a whole lot naughtier.

Nicer, too, perhaps. Let's look again at the two biographies. Kerry marries an heiress, who writes a book about becoming suicidal with depression over her role as a political wife. They divorce; he mooches around broke for a few years and then romances a billionaire widow who goes on to support him with her late husband's money. To the outrage of his first wife he annuls the old marriage, thus pretending it was not a genuine union.

In the course of the presidential election debates - all of which he supposedly won - Kerry is asked what he has learned from the "strong women" around him. He neglects to mention by name his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, cracks a lame joke about having "married up", and then praises his mother.

Here is Bush in answer to the same question: "I can't tell you how lucky I am. When I met [Laura] in the backyard at Joe and Jan O'Neill's in Midland, Texas, it was the classic backyard barbecue. O'Neill said, 'Come on over. I think you'll find somebody who might interest you.' So I said all right. Bopped over there. There was only four of us there. And not only did she interest me, I guess you would say it was love at first sight."

He and Laura are still together. Now ask yourself, who would you rather marry?

So far I have deliberately left politics out of the equation. We can take it as read that plenty of women abhor Bush as a warmonger, hold him responsible for the deaths of young soldiers - every one of them somebody's son or daughter - and are repelled by his smugness. They will be despairing at his inauguration, but they weren't swing voters.

In the event, Bush didn't impress a majority of women. The Centre for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University found on examining the exit-poll data that 48 per cent of women and 55 per cent of men voted for Bush: a gender gap of seven points. Yet in 2000 there was a gap of 10 per cent: 43 per cent of women and 53 per cent of men voted for Bush. In a close election, those extra women voters made all the difference.

Moreover, compared to Al Gore in 2000, Kerry fared badly among working women (51 per cent for Kerry v 58 per cent for Gore) and white women (44 per cent v 48 per cent). Some of the slide in Kerry's vote may well be accounted for by the pollsters' favourite post-11 September phenomenon, the "security mom", who preferred the gunslinging Bush to the let's-call-a-summit Kerry when it came to protecting home and family.

At issue was not simply who was going to "hunt and kill" the terrorists. Both men said they would. On the crucial question of trust, I believe Laura gave Bush a decisive advantage. Again, the candidates' personal lives provide an illuminating backdrop. While Kerry's meandered all over the map (just like his position on the war in Iraq), we know the Bushes worked at their marriage because George W wasted years as a boorish alcoholic. But Laura persevered with him and he remained loyal to her. What better proof that steadfastness pays off? When reporters asked Bush what he had given Laura for their 25th anniversary, he winked.

The first lady, a bookworm, is admired even by some American left-wingers. She is teased at times for her Zen-like serenity (could it be Prozac?), but there is also bewilderment that someone as kind as she is could possibly support her husband's wars. Last year Tony Kushner, the award-winning dramatist, devoted a play to her, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, in which the spirits of dead Iraqi children in their pyjamas appealed to her better self. He admitted he admired her, and the part was played by Susan Sarandon and Holly Hunter. Her approval ratings consistently hover above 60 per cent.

As for the Bush twins, Barbara and Jenna, they are fun, flirty and spoiled. They love their parents but are embarrassed by them, which makes them like most American children. Karl Rove, "the Architect", used to cringe when they appeared in public because he feared they would alienate conservatives, but Karen Hughes, Bush's more female-friendly adviser, grasped the appeal to women of a flawed but united family, and put them centre-stage.

I would not say I was a typical female voter. I belong to that small but not electorally insignificant band of registered Democrats who voted for Bush (I have citizenship through my American mother). I could not support Kerry because I was afraid he would leave Iraqi democrats in the lurch at a critical point in their history without making America any safer.

There are plenty of Bush's policies I do not support and I have already had twinges of buyer's remorse. There may be battles ahead over abortion rights and reform of social security, upon which millions of women depend. But I have only to imagine the inauguration of President John Forbes Kerry to feel that I made the right choice. And if you ask me, purely as a woman, if I like Bush better, the answer in all honesty is yes.

Sarah Baxter is New York correspondent of the Sunday Times