An All-Out Battle for Women's Votes Begins

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin responds to rallygoers in Dayton, Ohio. The extent of her appeal will probably be determined by which campaign can define her early on.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin responds to rallygoers in Dayton, Ohio. The extent of her appeal will probably be determined by which campaign can define her early on. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Juliet Eilperin and Anne Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 30, 2008

In 1984, Walter Mondale's choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate shattered a glass ceiling as old as the republic, thrilled feminists and helped create a gender gap among voters that has aided Democrats ever since. That was 24 years before another woman, Sarah Palin, was named to a national ticket, and this time, it is conservatives who think they have seized the political advantage.

It is unclear whether Palin, the pro-gun, antiabortion governor of Alaska, will be able to deliver a significant number of female independents and Democrats to Sen. John McCain, the man who chose her. But her selection has energized both conservative Republicans and some disaffected supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who resent that their candidate did not make it onto the Democratic ticket this year. McCain's choice also made some women, including Clinton, wary of being too critical of Palin, who managed to assume a role in national politics that they have sought for a woman ever since Mondale and Ferraro went down to defeat.

"It's basically the equivalent of a midnight raid behind enemy lines," said Juleanna R. Glover, a GOP strategist with ties to the McCain campaign. "Hillary said she made 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. Well, McCain just shattered it."

Serrin M. Foster, president of Feminists for Life, a nonpartisan group to which Palin has belonged since 2006, said the governor's sudden political ascent demonstrates how women are making gains, regardless of their ideology. "The early feminists worked for the rights of women to vote and our right to life," Foster said yesterday. "This is one more step in a long march for women's history."

Clinton herself stayed relatively quiet yesterday, issuing a crisp statement heralding Palin's position on the GOP ticket. "We should all be proud of Governor Sarah Palin's historic nomination, and I congratulate her and Senator McCain," she said. "While their policies would take America in the wrong direction, Governor Palin will add an important new voice to the debate."

Not all liberals were so cautious. Debbie Dingell, a loyal Clinton backer and the wife of Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), said she had been talking to women all day yesterday who felt "insulted" by the move. "This is just sheer political pandering," she said. "I don't think women are going to buy it."

Ellen R. Malcolm, president of Emily's List, which supports women candidates, summarized the reasons for that anger: Palin's positions on the issues traditionally pressed by women's groups. "Governor Palin and John McCain are a good match because they both want to overturn Roe V. Wade, they both want to continue the failed economic policies of the Bush administration and they both offer more of the same that has led this country down the wrong path," she said in a statement. "McCain clearly sees the power of women voters in this election but has just as clearly failed to support any of the issues that they care about."

Within minutes of Palin's announcement, NARAL Pro-Choice America sent out a fundraising appeal as well as a text message to its supporters saying the vice presidential candidate is "a member of the radical anti-choice org Feminists for Life."

Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Cecile Richards said the fact that McCain has picked a woman who is so adamantly opposed to abortion "shines a light on these issues more sharply than if he had picked just another guy."

Polling data suggest that Obama has the Democrats' traditional advantage among women at the moment. Washington Post-ABC News polling this year indicates that nearly six in 10 women call themselves either Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents, and in the latest Post-ABC poll, 55 percent of female voters supported Sen. Barack Obama, and 37 percent supported McCain.

In 2004, women went for John F. Kerry by a slim 51 percent to 48 percent but were more solidly Democratic in the three previous elections.

The extent of Palin's appeal will probably be determined by which side -- McCain's or Democratic nominee Barack Obama's -- defines the relatively unknown politician in the weeks to come. Republicans hope to portray her as a down-to-earth reformer and mother of five, who chose to sell off the Alaska governor's jet and instead drive her family around the state.

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