By Anne E. Kornblut and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
There was a time when advisers to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) looked abroad for proof that women can get elected to a top leadership role in the modern world: Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister; Angela Merkel, the German chancellor; and Michelle Bachelet, the president of Chile.
But as presidential candidate Ségolène Royal was defeated by a conservative man who had been France's chief law enforcement officer, the Clinton campaign was quick to dismiss comparisons between their candidate and her Socialist counterpart across the Atlantic. "Other than the fact that they are both women, they don't have much in common," said Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director.
Unlike Royal, who emphasized her charm and femininity rather than her strength on foreign policy, Clinton has proven her national security bona fides, her advisers said. They argued that unlike Royal, Clinton does best among her own gender. An Ipsos exit poll on Sunday found that Royal lost the women's vote by 4 percentage points, while 2008 polling in the United States has shown a gender gap in which Clinton performs stronger among women, particularly those younger than 60.
Clinton advisers said that, if anything, Royal proved that a woman must run with a focus on her credentials. Clinton allies saw the race as evidence that the New York senator is running the right kind of campaign, a substantive one -- even if it means she is sometimes accused of lacking charisma.
"Hillary Clinton offers a very different kind of choice than the French faced," said Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist. "Hillary Clinton is well regarded as strong, smart and a leader. Her experience says she is ready to see the country through changes with a steady, substantive and sure hand."
Marie Wilson, who runs a nonpartisan group called the White House Project that has long promoted the idea of a female president, said that unlike Clinton, Royal "was not someone who was deeply engaged in issues."
"That's not something you can say about Hillary Clinton," Wilson said. "If you're running as the first woman, you're going to have to know your stuff."
Still, the Royal campaign seemed likely to provide fodder, if not exact parallels, for analysts wondering about the role that identity politics will play in the 2008 campaign in the United States, when a woman and an African American are battling each other at the top of the Democratic field.
Some Republicans saw the Royal defeat as an unexpected ray of hope after the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy, who ran a Rudolph W. Giuliani-style campaign of zero tolerance for criminal or civil strife. At the same time, the Sarkozy election gave a boost to the Bush administration, which has never had an ally in power in Paris.
Tom Ingram, who was an adviser to Fred D. Thompson's 1994 Senate campaign and has talked to him about a potential 2008 presidential run, said that he thought the Royal race might be good for Republicans, but not because of gender or any similarity Royal had to Clinton.
"It looked to me like more a change-versus-status-quo campaign, and I think that's interesting, since the change candidate was of the same party as the outgoing president, which is a little odd," Ingram said. "Maybe that's good news for Republicans."