By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton enters the presidential arena as the most viable woman ever to seek the office and at a propitious moment.
More women hold elected office than ever before, and 9 million more women than men voted in the last presidential election. The New York Democrat's candidacy will test whether she can turn excitement over gender into a powerful political advantage.
"Over the last 35 years, the political climate has changed to make women more acceptable to Americans at all levels of office," said Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "And now, finally, the moment has arrived when we have a candidate ready to make that leap and a public that can see a woman in that role."
After some rocky moments with female voters over the past 15 years, Clinton begins her historic race viewed favorably by 59 percent of women nationally, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll completed Friday night. She is viewed favorably among women of all age groups and educational backgrounds, and has especially large advantages among core pockets of Democratic women, including non-whites and lower-income women, and among Northeasterners.
In primary and general election matchups as of today, Clinton has sizable advantages among women, the survey showed. Forty-nine percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning women would support her in their state's caucus or primary if it were held today, compared with 18 percent who would support Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). And against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), she has a big lead among women.
She is particularly popular among younger women, 18-34, who see her as a role model and who may not recall the negative publicity and partisan attacks that Clinton weathered as first lady over her health-care proposal and other issues. "I like her because she's a Democrat and a woman, and it's time for a female president," said Rene Davis, 23, of Gloucester, N.J . "If I have a daughter, I want to know that she can run for president."
For this reason, women's advocates see her candidacy as having the potential to create a cultural and political shift not unlike those under John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president and a symbol of generational change, or during the Vietnam War.
"What is so exciting about this is that she will appeal to a whole new generation of women who will become political and get involved because of her," says Ellen Malcolm, the president of Emily's List, which raises money for female candidates. "We will see a dramatic shift in demographics that could affect the landscape for decades to come."
In the Post survey, Clinton made her most significant strides in the past 10 months among women 55 and older, 59 percent of whom have a favorable view of her, compared with 48 percent last year.
"I think you're seeing an overall warming up towards her," said Mark Penn, a longtime adviser and pollster for Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton. "With older women, objections are beginning to melt because Senator Clinton is getting out there and saying, 'Here's what I can do,' and they are paying attention."
Clinton follows a path walked by other female presidential candidates, who either were dismissed as tokens or could not generate the support and funds to be competitive. In recent political history, a handful made the effort: Margaret Chase Smith in 1964, Shirley Chisholm in 1972, Patricia Schroeder in 1988 and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) in 2000.
Clinton's relationship with women has been slow in developing. It took her a long time to recover from a remark she made during her husband's 1992 campaign, when she appeared to be scornful of those who stayed home and baked cookies. But she generated tremendous sympathy when she stoically dealt with the public humiliation of her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Today, the senator's advisers acknowledge that one hurdle for Clinton will be to convince women that she can actually win -- a fear that women often articulate.
In her first race for the Senate in New York, her campaign targeted those very women in an advertisement showing a woman who said she tells her friends who have doubts about Clinton that they should "get over it."
Eventually Clinton won over a highly skeptical female electorate through relentless public appearances, old-fashioned retail politics and advertising. She won with 55 percent of the vote, including what exit polls showed was 60 percent of female voters.
Sources say Clinton's presidential campaign will attempt to implement this same strategy on a grander scale, by exposing her to as many people as possible in the small groups in which she thrives.
It was no accident that her announcement came in the form of a personal video, where she called her effort the beginning of a "conversation." And last month, she ventured onto "The View," the daytime show by women for women.
"There's no question women are stepping back and taking a second look," said Terry McAuliffe, a friend and adviser.
Polling Director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.