Freud's most famous question - "What do women want?" - might be the title of this political season's playbook, as President George W. Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry strut their best stuff and try to win women's votes.
What women want, apparently, is to be safe. In post-Sept. 11 America, the group of swing voters formerly known as "soccer moms" has morphed into "security moms" - mostly white, married women with children who worry first about national security.
Thus far, polls show Bush leading among such women, which is causing headaches for the Kerry campaign. In recent years, women reliably have voted Democratic, as in 2000, when 54 percent went for Al Gore.
But 9/11 really did change everything, including women's idea of an alpha male.
A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in mid-September found that registered women voters favored Bush over Kerry 48 percent to 43 percent. The split became more dramatic when the question focused specifically on which candidate would better protect the country from another terrorist attack.
Forty-eight percent said they had "a lot" of confidence in Bush, compared with 29 percent for Kerry. Twenty-five percent said they had "some" confidence in Bush, with 35 percent having "some" confidence in Kerry.
Married women were far more likely than single women to vote for Bush (59 percent) than for Kerry (32 percent), according to the same poll.
Naturally, Bush is trying to sustain and build on his popularity among women, while Kerry is trying to figure out how to catch their eye. This may explain his heavy emphasis on hair and apparel.
Bush, whose macho image needs no buffing, has toned down the cowboy rhetoric and begun presenting his daddy/hubby side to female audiences. He gets emotional talking about mothers being executed by the Taliban and misty-eyed about Afghan women registering to vote. Kerry, meanwhile, has enlisted the help of 9/11 widows and disgruntled mothers of soldiers in Iraq to support him in his bid to unseat W, which Bush says stands for Women.
You half expect to see the boys strap on a Speedo and set to competitive pyramid building.
Bush and Kerry are right to court the ladies, but adapting the message to the moment isn't likely to make the difference that counts. Women by now know what Bush and Kerry are made of and most likely will vote their instinct rather than respond to a slogan or a promise.
"It's just a feeling, a comfort level," Dina Murphy, a New Hampshire mother who voted Democratic the past three presidential elections, told the on-line newspaper telegraph.co.uk. "I trust Bush more to lead our country."
When it comes to hearth and home, females vote their ovaries. It's the nest, dummy.
On a deep-brain level, mothers want what they dare not utter aloud in a culture that pretends the sexes are the same. They want a man to protect them and their helpless offspring. And the alpha male will be recognized on a level too primitive to be measured by polls.
Oh, by the way, those tremors you feel? Don't be alarmed. It's just the hate-Daddy Metro crowd stamping their feet in protest. This is not an unexpected response when long-buried truths bubble to the surface. It will pass. Sometimes they just need a nap. Meanwhile, as campaign strategists try to paint a portrait of their candidate as the more intellectual, or the smarter strategist, or the morally superior man, or the more nuanced or the tougher hombre, they're missing the point. The real issue in the post-9/11 dating game is simple: Which is the truer man?
Who is the most constant, most dependable, most responsible?
Kerry's luck with the girls could shift, but he'll have to surmount an obstacle course of his own creation, including an impression of indecision and a record of saying what he thinks people want to hear.
Mothers, whose offspring confirm prior experience with some sweet-talkin' dude, know that score by heart. For their votes, they want a stand-up guy who will keep the hyenas at bay, not a windsurfing crooner stuck on his own purple heart.