By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Sen. John McCain and his aides have gone out of their way to praise Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in recent days, and by the end of the week his most prominent female supporter, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, will embark on a female-focused speaking tour in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The presidential campaign is hoping to capitalize on the "security moms" who backed President Bush over Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 election, while making inroads with other voters by questioning Sen. Barack Obama's experience on the economy and foreign affairs and trying to exploit unhappiness with his defeat of Clinton.
Their effort is understandable. While working-class white men have been a focus of the primaries, women -- who made up 54 percent of the electorate in 2004 -- may prove to be more decisive in the fall election.
McCain's overtures to women in the past have been limited -- his daughter Meghan McCain writes her own blog and his chief strategist's wife heads up a voluntary women's outreach group -- and now he is offering independent and Democratic women the unconventional pitch that his policy prescriptions for economic, health-care and environmental issues trump such traditional issues as equal pay, abortion rights and contraception coverage.
"No one should take a woman's vote for granted, and the Democratic Party should certainly not take it for granted," said Fiorina, who appeared on "Good Morning America" yesterday as part of her effort to reach female voters. "I'm a woman, and as a woman, I'm really proud Hillary Clinton ran for president. I am enormously proud of what she did, and frankly, I have enormous sympathy for what she went through."
Fiorina, who has campaigned for McCain for months and now serves as the Republican National Committee's Victory chair, said that while Republicans have not always won women as a bloc, the campaign has "a level playing field to work with" because "there are Democratic women who are very upset with the way the Democratic primary went."
But the Obama campaign and its allies are already courting Clinton's supporters with phone calls and behind-the-scenes negotiations on staffing and say they are confident that even Democratic women who have expressed anger about the outcome of the primaries would support Obama in the fall because of the Democratic Party's stance on domestic issues.
Obama senior adviser Anita Dunn said women were torn in the Democratic primary contests because voters were choosing between "two historic candidates, when both historic candidates had excellent records on women's issues."
"We're not running against Hillary Clinton any longer, and that's not the choice women have to make," she said yesterday. "They're choosing between two candidates who have dramatically different records on women's issues, neither of whom are a woman."
Women's groups moved quickly to close ranks behind the presumptive Democratic nominee this week, with several former Clinton supporters joining in a conference call to try to debunk McCain's assertion that he can appeal to women. Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, posted an article on the Huffington Post Web site on Tuesday explaining why her late mother, Ann Richards, who was a governor of Texas, would have backed Obama -- "Mom required only one thing of the many folks who asked for her campaign help: a 100 percent belief in women's rights" -- and her group is organizing 250 parties nationwide next week where female activists will tout Obama's legislative record.
But no one is underestimating the task ahead, which is to blitz voters with information on the two candidates' records to convince them that McCain is not as moderate as many women think he is.
"Let me be clear: We've got a lot of work to do," said Emily's List Executive Director Ellen Moran, whose Democratic political action committee backed Clinton's presidential bid but now favors Obama. "We're starting to do the research and focus the debate."
Polling data suggest that women are more likely than men to hold unfavorable views of McCain and to say they support Obama over McCain. But a Pew Research Center survey in late May suggested that the Democratic nomination battle may have had consequences for Obama. That poll found Obama just slightly ahead of McCain among women, 47 to 42 percent, while the two were nearly even among men, 47 percent for Obama to 46 percent for McCain.
Democrats are now taking heart from a Gallup daily tracking poll, which shows Obama making greater gains among women than men since Clinton left the race. "Obama's lead among women has now expanded from five percentage points to 13, while his deficit among men has shrunk from six points to two," Gallup reported.
The Planned Parenthood Action Fund has started distributing material advertising that McCain supports overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, and has opposed federal funding for comprehensive sex education at home and family planning overseas. It has given the senator a zero percent lifetime voting rating on women's issues. And Obama is likely to include a new section on women's issues in his stump speech, Dunn said, now that "he has a very different opponent" than Clinton.
But while the two candidates differ sharply on issues such as abortion rights and family planning, both camps probably will focus on economic issues to appeal to women this fall. In separate interviews yesterday, supporters used identical language to discuss how McCain and Obama view rising gasoline prices.
"John McCain gets that it now costs $80 to fill up your minivan when it used to cost $40," strategy director Sarah Simmons said.
"When you spend $76 to fill up the tank of your minivan, that's real money," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), adding that when Obama talks about issues that matter to women, "that is really going to win them over and warm them to him."
McCain advisers said they plan to appeal to women in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, who may be easier to sway than male union members, and who probably will consider economic issues as more critical than questions about contraception.
"The best thing we can do for women voters in this country is secure the future," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a McCain backer and abortion opponent. "What we have is a group of politicians denying that we have significant problems ahead of us. We're in some tall weeds, and we need strong leadership to get us out of there."
As part of their outreach to women McCain's aides have started booking him on shows such as "The View" and "Ellen" -- "We're trying to figure out ways to highlight his feminine side," senior aide Mark Salter quipped last week -- but the GOP candidate's campaign still has a fairly masculine feel. While the senator's communication director, director of scheduling operations and national campaign co-chair are women, the top aides who usually travel with him are all men, and McCain has made an occasional comment that takes audiences aback, as he did during an appearance on "The Daily Show" when he referred to a 14-year-old who had questioned his position on equal pay as "a very attractive young woman."
Fiorina, who has spent years addressing female audiences, said she is confident that McCain could appeal to women on issues such as climate change and portable, private health insurance because "very few women who I've met are single-issue voters."
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), however, said McCain and his aides would be wiser to focus their attention elsewhere.
"I don't think these are folks that are going to go out and be for John McCain," she said of Clinton's backers. "Honestly, in the end I believe it will be a fool's errand."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.