Encouraged by Women's Response, Clinton Stresses Female Side

Hillary Rodharm Clinton greets supporters at a stop in New Hampshire, where she plans to introduce a policy initiative with implications for women this week.
Hillary Rodharm Clinton greets supporters at a stop in New Hampshire, where she plans to introduce a policy initiative with implications for women this week. (By Jim Cole -- Associated Press)
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

AMES, Iowa -- The candidate was running late. But at the crossroads of Main Street and Kellogg Avenue here after dusk one night recently, a girl power rally was underway, even before Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton pulled up to the event site.

Raining Jane, an all-female band, played a Joan Jett cover. White-haired women packed onto a riser. Ruth Harkin, wife of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, took the microphone and roused the audience, saying the "first woman president of the United States" was on her way.

When Clinton finally appeared -- introduced by a seventh-grade girl who precociously described the gender gap in American presidential politics -- the New York senator launched into her standard stump speech, wrapping up with what has become a familiar discourse about the demographics of the campaign trail. Clinton said she is "often struck at two groups of people" who come to shake her hand -- women in their 90s who want to make history and parents of young daughters.

"As I go by, shaking hands and meeting people," Clinton said, building up to the apex of her speech, "I often hear a dad or a mom lean over to a little girl, and say, 'See, honey, you can be anything you want to be.' "

In the early days of the 2008 presidential race, the question was often asked: Is the country ready to elect a female president? And Clinton seemed to be bracing to confront the doubters.

But as the primary campaign has evolved, giving Clinton a substantial lead in national polls in the race for the Democratic nomination, her public approach to the gender issue has shifted with it. Far from running away from the so-called woman question, she has taken to openly embracing it.

The result is a campaign that is much more overtly feminist than her own advisers had anticipated -- more House Speaker Nancy Pelosi than former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, more focused on reaching out to women than neutralizing worries about a woman candidate.

This week, Clinton is holding a series of events designed to underscore her strength among women. After a speech in New York on Monday, Clinton will unveil in New Hampshire on Tuesday a domestic policy initiative that aides say has implications for women, followed by a women's fundraiser on Wednesday.

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News survey, conducted in late September, 57 percent of women said they would support Clinton in a Democratic primary, compared with 15 percent for Sen. Barack Obama and 13 percent for former senator John Edwards. Of those who support Clinton, 31 percent said that her chance to make history was a factor in their decision.

At the same time, in a theoretical general election test against Republican front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani, Clinton has a lead that is almost entirely attributable to women. She also has a gaping lead among self-described feminists, according to the same poll. Men and women who call themselves feminists preferred Clinton 64 to 30 percent, while those who did not were evenly divided between Clinton and Giuliani, 48 to 46 percent.

The flip side of her strong support from women is the potential for a backlash among men -- especially in a state such as Iowa, the first caucus state, which has never elected a woman to Congress. Mark Penn, her chief strategist, said the "level of emotional attachment" between female voters and Clinton is strong enough to help carry her through the Iowa caucuses, which he said he expected to be 55 to 60 percent women. Fifty-four percent of Democratic caucusgoers in 2004 were women.

"It may be true that statewide they haven't elected a woman, but that's very different from a Democratic primary or caucus," Penn said. He also pointed out that Clinton is faring better among men in recent surveys than she did earlier this year.

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