Gregoire Ponders Leap Into Year Of The Woman 2000

COVER Girl Hillary Clinton is splashed across the front of a half dozen news magazines. Liddy Dole sparkles wherever she goes. In our state, mention that Attorney General Christine Gregoire is pondering a run for U.S. Senate, and many people beam like the sun breaking through after the latest nasty deluge.

If I'm not mistaken, another Year of the Woman in politics is coming, the millennial year, 2000. Yes, we do get more than one year.

When Liddy Dole announced she might run for president, the media launched into a Full Ga Ga. They like her wifely support of former presidential candidate and Viagra enthusiast Bob Dole and her own resume: She served in two presidents' Cabinets and was president of the American Red Cross.

Since Republican George W. Bush has presidential front-runner status, Liddy is a more likely vice-presidential contender. All the Ouija Boards that matter say the time is right for a female veep - and Liddy will be first. No matter that we know little about her. She married well, she's smart and she's got style.

Ubiquitous Hillary, the most publicly wronged woman in America, takes one look at the New York Senate race, and poof, everyone dreams of the ultimate political horse race featuring her against New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Hillary, too, is smart, and she exercises far more self-control than you-know-who.

Washington State Democrats eagerly await a decision by Gregoire as to whether she'll run against Republican Sen. Slade Gorton. Gregoire is weighing family concerns and the uncomfortable fact she'd be challenging a longtime friend and mentor.

Gorton not only gave Gregoire her first job in the attorney general's office, he also supported her efforts on the national tobacco lawsuit. As a lead negotiator, Gregoire announced the multibillion-dollar settlement between the industry and the states.

If she enters the 2000 Senate race, she has to go full throttle against a guy she admires.

Can there be another Year of the Woman? My sense is 2000 will be a more subtle event. That is, gender alone won't cause a large number of women candidates to win. But for men and women voters, the female factor will be a plus in any given race. Women are rising to new prominence in many fields, music, business and politics.

Ask the wise man or woman on the street why Gregoire is such a hot prospect, the answer, in some order, will be: she's a woman; she played a lead role in the tobacco settlement; she's a bright, tough lawyer.

Some say every year is the year of the woman in Washington, where there's nothing unusual about electing female politicians. Six years in a row, the state has had the nation's highest percentage of women in the Legislature, now topping 40 percent.

"Women candidates have an advantage," says state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt. "A moderate woman running against a moderate man for Legislature has the edge. We saw that last election."

Here are a few theories why women are winning. Every time Congress rolls back the curtains and TV cameras show government at work, the public is turned off by boorish behavior. No matter whose side you were on during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings (I thought she was pushing her luck), you were offended by the spectacle of Sen. Orrin Hatch and other moralists boring in with brutish insensitivity.

Those hearings, in part, produced the first year of the woman in 1992. Similarly, voters recently watched a months-long parade of tone-deaf men in the House of Representatives display a wanton disconnect with the public. People yearn for something different; some suspect more women at top levels may provide it.

Several experts say women govern differently. Of course, you still have pols like state Sen. Pam Roach trying to show they have as much testosterone as the guys. But generally, women politicians are more likely to share credit. They're good at forging compromise. They raise the profile of policy issues affecting women, children and families, according to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. That includes education.

During impeachment, two Republican moderates from Maine, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, shined because of their independence and grace under fire. Both worked toward bipartisan compromise. Both voted not to impeach. Maine, interestingly, has the nation's second-highest percentage of women in its state senate, after Washington.

The other Democrat of substance who might challenge Gorton is King County Executive Ron Sims, a polished public speaker popular with Democrats and Republicans. Sims won't run if Gregoire does. For whatever reason - Sims ran against Gorton last time and lost, she has run successfully statewide, she's female - Sims is in the No. 2 position for this race. A Democratic poll being conducted this weekend will assess Gorton's vulnerabilities and potential challengers' strengths.

One caution about all this gender talk: No matter what luster Gregoire enjoys, never underestimate Gorton. He has become an important player in D.C. He raises piles of money and runs hard.

Voters now are more sophisticated than seven years ago. They won't support Gregoire or any other candidate just because they're female. But when push comes to shove in 2000, women candidates who offer something different will have an edge.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: