By Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 10, 2008
BANGOR, Maine, Feb. 9 -- It is women like Linda Sinclair who have turned New England into a potentially tough playing field for Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).
Sinclair listened with rapt attention as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) spoke at a rally in Orono on Saturday morning, on the eve of Sunday's Maine caucuses. She committed to Clinton three months ago, and while she planned to attend an afternoon Obama event in nearby Bangor, she did not expect to change her mind.
"She's really in touch with the common person, even though she's not one," Sinclair, 58, said of Clinton. "I think they're both very bright. But she's more solid. I think he's fluffy."
Obama drew a huge crowd in Bangor on Saturday: 7,000 inside the local civic center and 3,000 more cheering in the slushy snow outside the front entrance. Clinton's events were smaller, but she was clearly in her element, talking health-care policy to audiences of mostly older female voters, who have emerged as one of her staunchest support groups.
Traditionally Democratic women helped rescue Clinton's presidential bid in New Hampshire by breaking her way in large numbers in the Jan. 8 primary. Five days earlier, Clinton placed third in the Iowa caucuses, behind Obama and former senator John Edwards (N.C.).
In Massachusetts, where Bill Clinton scored a big reelection margin in 1996, women also broke heavily for Hillary Clinton in Tuesday's primary. Obama had been endorsed by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry and by Gov. Deval L. Patrick, but it was the votes of women that gave Clinton one of her biggest Super Tuesday wins.
Maine should be friendly territory for Obama. Its voters are staunchly antiwar, and caucuses, which rely heavily on grass-roots organizing, have proved to be Obama's strong suit. But Clinton campaign officials are optimistic that her message will resonate here.
Maine is "independent-minded and has strong female elected officials," including two GOP senators, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, said Clinton adviser Karen Hicks. The candidate's domestic policy proposals, including universal health coverage and middle-class tax cuts, are particularly well suited for the region, Hicks said, because "everyone feels attuned to those issues. You have a lot of women working two jobs, working on their feet, with their hands."
Clinton's habit of outlining her proposals in precise detail makes for long speeches but delivers the kind of substance that appeals to women, her supporters say. "Women really do care about substance," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a Clinton backer. Likening politics to grocery shopping, Cantwell said, "Women want to hear the list."
In Massachusetts, Clinton won 62 percent of women to Obama's 36 percent, according to entrance and exit polls. In New Hampshire, she won 46 percent of the female vote, compared with 34 percent for Obama.
In Iowa, by contrast, Obama beat Clinton among women, 35 percent to 30 percent. In Missouri, a Super Tuesday state that broke narrowly for Obama, he also edged out Clinton among women, 49 percent to 48 percent, according to entrance and exit polls.
The exception was Connecticut, a surprise win for Obama on Tuesday. Clinton's victory among female voters in the state was a narrower 53 percent to 45 percent. One factor in Obama's favor: the Democratic professionals who live along the New York border, the kind of "latte liberals" who have gravitated to him around the country.
"We're just not sure what's going to happen in Maine," said David Axelrod, Obama's top political adviser. "The whole region has been challenging for us."
At Clinton's rally in Orono on Saturday, on the campus of the University of Maine, she was introduced by state Rep. Emily Ann Cain, who talked of the importance of electing a female president. Clinton spoke at length about her plan for universal health care, an issue that carries particular resonance with women. She also spoke candidly of the significance of her run, casting herself as a typical working woman.
"A lot of people ask me, 'What difference would a woman president make?' Well, probably more than we can imagine. But I'll tell you one: I have lived the balance of work and family. I know how challenging it is for families," Clinton said.
But scores of older women also turned out for Obama in Bangor. Retiree Helen Locke, 69, arrived two hours early at the civic center with her friend Louisa Barnhart, 54, a psychiatrist, but they were too late for seats inside the 7,000-capacity arena. So they waited outside for Obama to arrive, securing positions along the police barricades.
Before he went in for the rally, Obama gave a four-minute version of his stump speech to the crowd out front. Afterward, he spent a few moments shaking hands, including Barnhart's and Locke's.
The two women had attended the Clinton rally in Orono but had come away unimpressed. "We think she kind of had canned things to say," Barnhart said.
Locke nodded in agreement. "I guess I am one of her targets. But he's the only one I see as a change to what we've got now."