Post mortem

Here's a warning for women who run fast-growing companies: be on the lookout for bomb-sniffing German shepherds and gun-toting Secret Service agents. And don't be surprised if Rush Limbaugh disses you on the radio. That's because big-time politicians have decided that as a key to electoral success, hanging out with female CEOs is right up there with kissing babies.

Last fall both George W. Bush and Al Gore made highly publicized pilgrimages to Inc. 500 companies run by women. During his September visit, Bush "was very personable and very easy to have," recalls Carol Latham, the founder and CEO of Cleveland-based Thermagon Inc., an $18-million maker of a filmy material used in electronic devices "One of our employees asked him if he would come back when he was president, and that just brought the house down. But he said yes."

Of course, a company like Thermagon doesn't need to cajole a politician into stopping by. Increasingly, savvy campaigners want to be seen at such businesses. Last year, "the women's vote was really very hotly contested," says William Schneider, CNN's senior political analyst. "Woman entrepreneurs are definitely something new to politics. When a candidate links himself to a successful woman entrepreneur, other woman voters may respond to that."

A month after Bush went to Thermagon, Gore visited Heather Howitt, founder and CEO of Oregon Chai Inc., a company that sells a tea drink. (See " Big Plans.") Before the event, the veep's staff put Howitt through some serious due diligence. "They asked me if I was going to vote for Gore in many different ways," she says. "I think they were most concerned that I or others here in the office could be Nader supporters."

Gore, with his well-known competitive streak, was probably also thrilled that Howitt's company had landed a full 124 places higher on the Inc. 500 than Bush's boosters at Thermagon. "Gore came to the office and met everyone," Howitt says. "Then I jumped into his Suburban, and the two of us were driven to a local coffee shop."

There the two spent 45 minutes chatting mostly for the benefit of the press and mostly about their mutual affection for small-business-development loans. "There were gobs of Secret Service and press, and that really made it scary," says Howitt, who later learned that Limbaugh had ridiculed her.

While Howitt stood at center stage when Gore visited, Thermagon's Latham shared the spotlight with her employees. Literally. Bush's aides used Thermagon staffers to put a human face on their plan to privatize Social Security. "My people sat behind him on stools while he spoke," Latham says. As a "staunch Republican," Latham was fully behind Bush even before she met him. But she's still not sure how it came to be that he showed up at her door.

In the future, neither Latham nor any other female Inc. 500 CEO should be surprised when a candidate comes calling. In fact, those calls will likely start shortly after this month's inauguration. The 2000 campaign "was a gender war fought to a stalemate," notes CNN's Schneider. "So next time, each candidate will try to reach out to women even more."

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