By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Like many New Hampshire voters, Matthew McLaughlin is rather well schooled in presidential politics. He exhaustively reads newspapers, takes in the television ads flooding his state these days and watches the debates. He is a former Navy pilot with a particular interest in the next commander in chief, and he certainly views himself as progressive enough to accept a woman in the job.
And this particular woman, in contention for the Democratic nomination? McLaughlin, 49, doesn't hesitate for a second, as he stands in the grocery store on a recent snowy afternoon in Bedford, holding the basket while his wife loads up on cold cuts.
"The thing I don't like about Hillary Clinton is that you cannot get a straight answer from her," says the registered Democrat. "She talks on both sides of an issue. . . . I was struck when Barack Obama laid out his position on Social Security reform and she refused to give her opinion. My view is: 'Like me or not. This is who I am, this is where I stand.' "
McLaughlin's choice for the Democratic nomination: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. "Here's the thing, you delete one thing on his r¿sum¿ and he still has a ton of other credits to his name," McLaughlin says. "You take away her Senate years and what does she have? She was first lady."
As the world of politics fixates on the women's vote in this cycle, there looms a question: What about the guys?
They're in the gender gap.
In Iowa, Clinton's support among male Democratic caucusgoers lags behind Barack Obama, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
In New Hampshire, she's doing better among male Democrats, but she faces questions about her candor. Half of men say she's not willing to say what she really thinks. Large majorities say that Obama and John Edwards are.
Nationally, her gender gap among Democrats is smaller, the poll shows, but some analysts suggest that these numbers are not strong enough for a general election, because a majority of male independents view her unfavorably.
Her lead in the national polls has been attributed primarily to female supporters, and her campaign has worked doggedly to cultivate them. She also has an edge with male primary voters nationally within her own party. But introduce independents, those precious swing voters she will need to win a general election, and the picture is not as kind. Let's just say that if this were high school, she wouldn't make prom court.
Women's rights advocates attribute male skepticism about Clinton to long-ingrained sexism -- and a sense that men, no matter what they say, just aren't ready for a female president. And political conservatives have exploited those often-unspoken fears of female power to caricature Clinton for years. But in several interviews with Democratic men across the country, the stated reasons for their aversion to Clinton seem more complicated, and in many cases, far more visceral than substantive.
They just don't like her, some say. They don't know what she stands for. They believe her word is no good, that she doesn't believe that she can be held accountable. They see her as intellectual snob who lets you know she's smarter. They say she sounds like everybody's ex-wife. They can't tell if she's the loyal, traditional wife who stayed with her husband for love after his humiliating extramarital affair -- or a canny politician who stayed because it was politically expedient. Even: Is she a Yankees or a Cubs fan?
For the Clinton campaign, these last few weeks before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are a push to sweep away such personal reservations for voters. The New York senator continues to be ranked highest nationally among Democrats in polls on key traits, such as most presidential, knowledgeable about the world, electable and experienced. Still, it is Democratic men rather than women who in interviews have the long memories for the long-ago rumors and White House scandals that portray Clinton as an angry woman -- the travel office fiasco when she pushed to have the longtime staff fired, or the never-proved rumor that she once threw a lamp -- or an ashtray, pick your weapon of choice -- at her husband.
"She can't shed her past," says Doug Wheeler, a retired University of New Hampshire history professor who recently decided his candidate was Sen. Barack Obama. "Obama doesn't have that problem. There's a charisma about Obama and I like his answers to questions. John Kennedy had that charisma, and you could argue that he didn't have that much experience when he was elected."
Listen to McLaughlin, the airline pilot, and his wife, Debbie, 50, a school librarian, talk about Clinton in separate interviews.
Debbie: "[Matt] says the fact that she is a woman doesn't matter, but down deep I think it does. He believes women should be treated equal but . . . men don't want to be beat by a woman. They don't want to be beaten by the other sex."
Matt: "I wouldn't not vote for her just because she's a woman. That wouldn't throw me over the edge by any stretch. We had a female governor of New Hampshire [Jeanne Shaheen] and I supported her."
Debbie: "What I like is that Hillary is connected -- she can hit the ground running right away. She could start making the changes she needs to make almost immediately."
Matt: "What qualifies her to be president? She spent eight years as first lady. She didn't have a Cabinet. She wasn't elected to any position of power."
Debbie: "She is an extremely intelligent person. . . . She was an adviser to Bill."
Matt: "If she came to Washington, she certainly would not be a uniter. She brings divisions. She doesn't come with a clean slate."
Ed Beattie, a history teacher and girls' varsity basketball coach at Winnacunnet High School in New Hampshire, agonized for months about who would get his support. He worked hard for John Kerry in 2004. A well-known union activist in the state for the National Education Association, and a tireless Democrat, Beattie was heavily courted. In August, he declared for John Edwards, which in effect meant rejecting Clinton in a state where she had secured the lion's share of institutional Democratic support.
"If she wasn't married to Bill Clinton, where would she be in this election cycle?" Beattie says in an interview. "Name me one state she could carry that John Kerry didn't carry in 2004."
Beattie adds that this was a particularly important election for changing the partisan tone in Washington. "Look at where the country is now -- the American people don't need anyone more polarizing," he says.
Ed Brick, a California contractor, actually started out supporting Clinton and then turned on her. "I don't know what it was, but the more I read and the more I listened to her, the less I liked her," he says. "I never get the sense she's giving a straight answer, and that doesn't give me much faith in her. I don't care about color or gender -- I just want someone straightforward with the people."
"Women see her not just as a role model, but as a savior," says Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster not affiliated with any presidential candidate. "Men know she is smarter, and there is a sense of intimidation. But it goes beyond that. She never admits a mistake, and that's a big mistake."
In fact, she has made strong gains among white men, who have been fleeing the Democratic Party for decades. In 2000, exit polls showed George W. Bush leading Al Gore among white men by 24 percentage points. Four years later, with Kerry at the head of the ticket, the margin for Bush was 25 points. In addition, there are unique challenges for most women running for office.
"In general, men have the most problem electing women to executive jobs -- such as governor," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist working with Sen. Joe Biden in the presidential race. "They wonder, 'Can she be effective? Will other men -- in Congress, world leaders -- be willing to listen to her?' "
But Lake and others also note that Clinton does have unique negatives. "In Senator Clinton's case, men have stored a lot of doubts about her," Lake says.
Bruce Nielsen, who picks up recycling for the city of Buffalo, is one of those men.
"No way -- not even close," he says during a phone interview after participating in a Post poll. "Where do I start? I guess her views on the war, and the fact that I'm afraid if we pull out of Iraq too fast, she'll bring the war over here." Clinton now favors a phased troop redeployment starting immediately.
And then: "I just don't like her personality. She wears the pants in that family. She's pushy. The way Bill got caught [philandering] -- I think she should have left him. I pretty much lost respect for the woman.
"This has nothing to do with gender. I just don't like the woman."
So whom is he leaning toward?
He struggles with a name, and then turns from the phone to ask his wife: "What's the colored fella's name? Obama. Yeah, Obama, I like him.
"He's a good family man, strong family values. He respects people and he seems honest. Experience -- probably not as much as the others, but he's not afraid to get his hands dirty."
Retired physician Warren Emley is among the 40 percent of registered Independents in New Hampshire, and he came to a Rotary Club to give a listen to Mitt Romney.
He's still shopping across the field, but there's one candidate he's already rejected: Hillary Clinton.
"We'd have a dual presidency, and I don't like that," Emley says. "Bill had a good run, but now it's time for change." There's no question in his mind, he says, that "they have some secret agenda."
And then he lowers the ax: "I will never understand why she stayed with him, why she didn't walk away. This 'stand by your man' stuff. It doesn't fly with me."