Each time the demure woman in the yellow shirtwaist dress intoned the tantalizing phrase "if I run," she was interrupted by a riotous chant: "Run, Pat, run! Run, Pat, run!" Not since the heady moment when Geraldine Ferraro was picked as the 1984 Democratic vice-presidential nominee had there been such spontaneous excitement among women activists.
In a matter of minutes after finishing her speech to the National Organization for Women in Philadelphia, Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, 47, had collected checks and pledges totaling $351,344, a sum that could make her eligible for federal matching funds if she decides to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Already, the mere prospect that she will join the race has galvanized women's groups and activists who have grown impatient with the timid stances on feminist issues staked out by Schroeder's male competitors. Insists Betty Friedan, who was among the first to urge Schroeder to run: "This is a much needed ray of hope."
If Schroeder does indeed become the first woman to run for President since Shirley Chisolm's largely symbolic bid in 1972, she will have to offer more than just a ray of hope. Skepticism about her chances runs high among / political pros in Washington, and even some women activists fear that because Schroeder waited so long to get into the race her campaign will be "too little, too late." Republicans take undisguised pleasure in her bid, predicting that, like Jesse Jackson's, it will exacerbate the Balkanization of the Democratic Party. To the seven male Democrats battling for recognition, Schroeder could present a threat if she can pre-empt the support of a large corps of female voters, who account for 53% of the Democratic electorate. Says candidate Joe Biden, Senator from Delaware: "She can attract a lot of support."
A co-chair of Gary Hart's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, Schroeder did not contemplate running until after her fellow Coloradan dropped out last May. She took a long look at the remaining contenders and figured, "Why not?" Says Schroeder: "I've been in national politics longer than anyone else except Biden. I have as many legislative achievements. I've been to every hot spot on the globe." She insists she will not enter the field unless she can raise $2 million and pull together a "realistic, serious" campaign by fall. "It's a bloody lot of work," Schroeder shrugs. "Why do it just to be a symbol?"
An eight-term Congresswoman, Schroeder, unlike Ferraro, never significantly penetrated the House leadership. Says one staffer: "She was close in but never inside." Some House members regard her as a bit of a flake. She signs her congressional mail with a smile symbol and is still taunted from time to time for having donned a bunny suit in China, to entertain children during Easter, in 1979.
If these lapses from accepted political decorum suggest an antic disposition, Schroeder has that -- along with a formidable gift for phrasemaking. It was she who first dubbed Reagan the "Teflon President" and defense contractors the "welfare queens of the Reagan Administration." She dismisses doubts about her campaign with the same breezy confidence: "America is man enough to elect a woman President." Or, at the very least, to let a woman try.