HANOVER, N.H. (WOMENSENEWS)–Lifetime Television built it, but only half of them came.

Just two days before the critically important New Hampshire primary, only three of the six leading Democratic hopefuls made an appearance at one of the first open forums for presidential candidates to address issues of importance to female voters.

Vermont former Gov. Howard Dean, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Ohio and U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Conn., took the rare opportunity to address issues identified with women before a packed crowd at the “Every Woman Counts” event in Hanover, N.H., produced by Lifetime Television in partnership with ABC News’ “Good Morning America” and Dartmouth College. The three Democratic hopefuls fielded questions from a mostly female audience on issues such as pay equity, universal health care, subsidized day care, universal preschool programs and domestic violence.

Excerpts from the forum will be featured today and Tuesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Claire Shipman, a senior correspondent for the network, moderated the forum. Lifetime Television will also stream portions of the forum on its Web site for its initiative, “Every Woman Counts.”

Absent, But Represented

Conspicuously absent from the forum were the two frontrunners in the Democratic race U.S. senators John Kerry, Mass., and John Edwards, N.C., as well as strong contender retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Also, the Rev. Al Sharpton, with no strong base in the state, told organizers early in the week that he would not be able to attend.

Kerry supporter Carole King, the songwriter and musician, explained Kerry’s absence by saying that it was just a matter of “not being able to be everywhere at once.”

The senator’s sister, Liz Kerry, was present. King pointed out that the candidate had marched with his sister on behalf of equal rights and was a sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act. King added that women should go to Kerry’s Web site and read about his long record on behalf of women’s issues.

Wisconsin Lieut. Gov. Barbara Lawton said at a gathering following the forum that she was an “unrepentant feminist” and that she supported Clark because he understood that “full reproductive rights” were necessary if women were to “participate fully in the economic and civil life of our society.”

A supporter from Clark’s campaign said the general decided to attend two rallies with a possible 2,000 supporters in attendance, rather than focus on the potential national audience at the forum. Edwards did not send representatives.

Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, said she was delighted that the three candidates who came were so responsive to the questions put to them by the audience, but that the absence of Kerry, Edwards and Clark concerned her. “They can’t get elected without women,” she said. “They should have been here.”

From the Judiciary to Minimum Wage

In New Hampshire, where 70 percent of the undecided voters are women, Burk’s words may garner new meaning for the missing trio come this Tuesday.

The three attending Democratic candidates were more than ready to capitalize on the relatively clear playing field. After it was announced that a recent Lifetime Television poll found nearly 50 percent of women don’t think any of the candidates (or the media) are adequately addressing the issues that most concern them, all three men spent the better part of the discussion espousing their commitment to improving the lives of women, to a generally enthusiastic audience.

Kucinich drew a rousing round of applause when he announced he would make support of Roe vs. Wade a litmus test for all Supreme Court Justice nominees. Dean and Lieberman also vowed to protect a woman’s right to choose, but shied away from the idea of “ideological” appointments to the federal courts. In what might have been a play to the hometown crowd, both cited New Hampshire Justice David Souter, a moderate, as their ideal appointee. Souter, known for his quiet personality, was appointed by the former president, George H. Bush, and has become a reliable vote on behalf of a wide range of privacy-related issues. Dean also mentioned Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an ideal justice.

Dean also expressed support for affirmative action, saying that he had appointed most of the judges in his home state, and that 50 percent of his judicial appointments were women because he insisted they be included in the list of candidates.

On financial issues, Dean pledged to raise the minimum wage nationwide to $7 an hour, something he has already done in Vermont. He pointed out that women are the majority of those paid the legal minimum.

Lieberman came out strongly in favor of equal pay for equal work, noting that over the average lifetime a woman earns $524,000 less than male counterparts for performing the same type of work. He also made of point of saying that this wasn’t just about women’s rights, but American’s rights. “Wage discrimination is profoundly un-American,” Lieberman said, “and it shouldn’t be allowed to continue.”

The candidates devoted substantial time to the problem of domestic violence, which Lieberman referred to as a “national epidemic.” Kucinich and Lieberman advocated for criminalizing men who ignore restraining orders. Dean spoke about the need to address the influence that drug and alcohol abuse have on domestic violence. Despite the repeated assurances from all the men that the Violence Against Women Act would be reauthorized in 2005 if they were elected president, not everyone in the audience was satisfied with their answers.

“They have not gone to the shelters and talked to the women,” said Lynn Rosenthal, executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Rosenthal said she was disappointed that none of the candidates on the stage seemed familiar with the details of the issues surrounding domestic violence, including battered women’s need for funds and assistance in rebuilding their lives.

Presidential hopefuls take note: During Lifetime Television’s recent poll of female voters, 85 percent said a candidate’s position on domestic violence would impact their vote.

Ginger Adams Otis is a free-lance writer living in New York City.

For more information:

Lifetime Televion– Every Woman Counts:

Dartmouth College–
Lifetime Television, ABC News “Good Morning America” and Dartmouth College will hold first Democratic Presidential Candidate Forum on issues critical to women on January 25: