Last June, a group of pollsters rounded up some women in New Jersey for a sophisticated game of Knock-Knock.

Let's imagine the candidates coming to your front door, the pollsters said. Knock-knock, who's there?First comes Dukakis. What do you think would happen next? Well, said the women, he'd come in, sit down and talk.

Okay, Knock-knock. This time it's Bush. One of these women answered for the group: Bush would come in and say hello, but he'd keep the car motor running.

This is the way it was in the early days when the women's vote ran deep and swift for the Democrats.

There was the sense among a majority of women that Bush didn't understand their lives, didn't make a connection with them.

But what a long, long way from June to October. In the last polls, a modest gender gap remained, but the advantage among women had slipped away. By the end of the second debate, the images of the two candidates had almost flip-flopped.

What happened to the women's vote was simple: The Democrats took women for granted. It was the Republicans who came knocking at the door.

From the beginning, the Republicans knew that Bush needed a biography that women would relate to and so they presented it. The Republican convention was a Bush family reunion. He was no longer the man with the resume, but the grandfather.

They knew he needed a language that resonated in women's ears as well, something better than "the value thing" and so they scripted one for him.

His speech writer, Peggy Noonan, crafted a speech that presented him as caring, a man who wanted "a gentler, kinder nation."

The original fuel behind the women's vote, what prejudiced them in favor of the Democratic camp at the outset, was their sense of economic vulnerability. It is not news that women suffered more from the Reagan era cuts and profited less from the Reagan era prosperity.

"On a whole set of issues, women have a Democratic profile," says Ethel Klein, a Columbia University professor who has tracked the women's vote. "But the campaign's silence on the domestic agenda really hurt."

Using the language of values, Bush spoke to women's fear of crime and environmental pollution. He issued one proposal for day care and another to encourage public service in young people.

However specious an attack, however dubious a fact, however modest a proposal, he was in the kitchen, talking.

Dukakis, on the other hand, continued to present himself as the son of immigrants rather than the father of a modern family, a man who knew firsthand the cost of food at the supermarket and the difficulties of finding time for your family. He said that he cared "very, very deeply."

But women in particular look for other clues and didn't find them. They have been harsher than men in judging the Democrat as unlikable.

Even in the debate last week, Dukakis talked about "tough choices" while Bush again talked about "values."

When asked a "hot`' question - how would he feel about capital punishement if his wife had been raped and murdered? - Dukakis answered much too coolly for the wives.

If, despite all this, the race remains close, it's because women remain suspicious of Bush and of Republicans as well.

There are 10 million more women voters than men, and some 13 percent are undecided compared to only 8 percent of men.

Dr. Klein says the candidates at this point are like two potential suitors. "Here's a guy, Bush, who's not offering women much, but he's still asking them out. And here's another guy, Dukakis, who's asking them to stay home and sit by the phone. He may be the guy they really want to go out with. But you get frustrated waiting."