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Clinton is happy to play the gender card

Times Staff Writer

A gender gap is growing in the Democratic presidential race, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton aims to widen it into a chasm.

Armed with mounting evidence that women are providing her a strong foundation in the crucial early months of the run-up to next year’s primaries, Clinton’s campaign is trying to organize almost every aspect of the Democratic women’s voting bloc -- including lining up the support of feminist elites and stoking excitement in teenage political neophytes.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 11, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
War vote: An article in Saturday’s Section A on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s support among women said it had been six years since she voted to authorize congressional backing for the war in Iraq. As the story noted elsewhere, the vote was five years ago, in 2002.

When the New York senator speaks to audiences crowded with women, she unabashedly depicts her candidacy as a historic opportunity to elect the first female president.

“Now is the time to break the biggest glass ceiling in the land,” a beaming Clinton said last week after her endorsement by the National Organization for Women’s political action committee, one of several influential women’s activist groups that have rushed to endorse her campaign.

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In contrast to the broader electorate, where, in 2006, women accounted for 51% of votes cast, women represent as much as 60% of registered voters in early Democratic primary and caucus states. And early surveys show Clinton ahead of her male rivals among women in every early primary and caucus state.

Nationally, a Zogby survey in late March found that Clinton outstripped her competitors, leading with 42% of likely primary voters among Democratic women, compared with 19% for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and 15% for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Clinton held a much thinner lead among male Democratic voters. At 28%, she barely edged Obama, who was at 26%, with Edwards trailing at 11%.

“We’ve really seen a constituency form around her,” said Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist and pollster. “One of the things people don’t realize is she has a solid base -- among women -- that’s harder and much more enthusiastic than anyone else has.”

She shows strength among independent women as well. A Gallup survey released Monday showed that nationally, 59% of female independent voters have a favorable image of Clinton -- compared with 45% of male independents.

Even Republican women view her slightly more favorably than do Republican men, though she ranks low with both groups, the poll found.

Just as Clinton is the first female candidate with a real shot at the White House, her openly gender-based strategy also explores new political territory. It is aimed at tapping into her loyal female base for energy and money and winning over Democratic women who might differ with her on specific policies, doubt her electability or simply dislike the controversial former first lady.

“The women’s vote is not monolithic,” said Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group, who is backing Edwards.

But Michelman concedes that Clinton is quickly locking up the top echelon of women’s movement leaders. The support of women’s political groups such as EMILY’s List and NOW means more than bragging rights. They offer ready campaign cash and PAC structures that fund media campaigns targeting women, voting and fundraising databases, and operatives who can aid in primary day turnout.

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One potential hurdle in monopolizing women’s support is Clinton’s response to the war in Iraq, which could hurt her in primary states where war opposition flares. Her refusal to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing congressional support for the war has nudged some disenchanted Democratic women to consider rival campaigns.

“The one person I’m not looking at is Hillary Clinton,” said Meg Hirshberg , a New Hampshire Democrat and prominent fundraiser. “She hasn’t been clear and consistent. Right now, the war in Iraq overrides everything else.”

Clinton’s 6-year-old war vote could also hurt her among unmarried and working class women -- a growing segment of economically stressed voters who have long excited Democratic Party strategists as a potent bloc, but who have turned out in underwhelming numbers in past elections.

New Hampshire’s blue-collar female voters proved receptive to a fierce antiwar campaign in November that won a congressional seat for novice Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. Clinton’s war posture “could leave her looking hazy on Iraq and cut into that support,” said Jennifer Donahue of St. Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

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Clinton aides insist that recent polls show little evidence of widespread antiwar opposition to her campaign. Female voters in primary states appear willing, they say, to accept her nuanced strategy to force an end to the war while keeping a skeleton force of U.S. troops in the Mideast to counter terrorists and support Iraqi defense forces.

Clinton is trying to cultivate single and working women by championing equal pay, economic relief and comprehensive national healthcare, talking up their concerns in webcasts and town hall meetings. But scoring points with harried female voters may require more than the sisterly patter that pervades Clinton’s campaign “conversations.”

“She has to find a way to connect to working women who otherwise don’t normally relate to her,” said Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “She can’t take women inside the party for granted.”

Mandel said Clinton would also face questions from Democrats about how electable she would be in a general election -- whether she would be a lightning rod for controversy and how well-equipped she is to fight back. For many female voters, Mandel suggested, that is “a balancing act. She has to be tough, but not too tough. She has to show she cares but she’s still in charge. It’s a fine line, and it won’t be easy.”

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Clinton’s aides said she has prospered in New York by heeding those concerns. As early as 1999, when Clinton began planning to run for the U.S. Senate, strategists worried that she had to shore up her standing among working-class women upstate.

The fiascos of her failed healthcare initiative and repeated Republican investigations during the White House years had taken a toll on Clinton’s public image, said a longtime aide who detailed the inner discussions on the condition of anonymity.

But during a series of meetings with small groups of women in private homes around New York state, Clinton scored points. “These weren’t her supporters,” the aide recalled, “but they left with good impressions. They saw her as an open, appealing woman who connected with their concerns. That gave us the sense she could work to change the stereotypes.”

Her New York tours are now the templates for the town hall “conversations” she uses on the campaign trail to introduce herself to primary voters.

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Her aides say the heavily attended events are not aimed solely at women. But Clinton’s relaxed demeanor, her chatty references to her ex-president husband and her supporters’ chants of “you go, girl” have all given the events the breezy air of an “Oprah” telecast.

While Clinton pursues her charm offensive, she and her aides have assembled a constellation of former staffers and allies from women’s activist circles. The Clinton organization is also building a formidable women’s apparatus, harnessing the passion of fervent supporters into a nationwide network of volunteers and fundraisers.

The day Clinton entered the race in January, she was endorsed by Ellen R. Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, the well-bankrolled funding arm for Democratic female candidates whose members spent more than $11 million on the 2006 election. Malcolm promises a wealth of cash and an organized effort to turn out women at primary day polling places.

“We’ll be connecting the dots between the issues women face and Hillary’s candidacy,” Malcolm said.

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Clinton’s connections among elites of the women’s movement have not prevented rival campaigns from making inroads. Obama was endorsed by San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala D. Harris and signed on Betsy Meyers, a former aide to President Clinton, to run day-to-day operations. And Edwards scored among abortion-rights advocates by winning support from ex-NARAL leader Michelman.

But Clinton’s support among women’s movement leaders is “deep and long-standing,” Malcolm said.

When Clinton threw a lavish Washington fundraiser in March that aides say raised $2.6 million, her paying guests included former NOW President Eleanor Smeal and a cadre of influential feminists. Even Clinton’s recent appearance at a noncampaign gathering hosted by Vital Voices, a nonpartisan group that promotes the fortunes of international female leaders, displayed her deep roots in women’s causes.

The group is headed by Melanne Verveer, a former close Clinton aide. The guests included loyalists such as Rosemary Straley, a retired public administrator from Northern California who is the national coordinator of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Support Network. Straley wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a huge image of the candidate’s face to “show we’re behind Hillary.”

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Clinton’s staff has connected her admirers to the campaign’s weekly flow of “Hillgrams” and other campaign material. When Melissa McPheeters, an epidemiologist in Ann Arbor, Mich., gets new e-mail from the Clinton campaign, she promptly forwards the messages to 100 female friends around the country.

“I’m supporting Hillary because I think she’s absolutely brilliant and practical and knows how to get things done,” said McPheeters, who said this was her first involvement in a presidential campaign.

The networking push is headed by Ann Lewis, a longtime Clinton aide who also manages other women-themed efforts for the campaign, including “I Can Be President,” a Web-based program to build a core group of volunteers among young women and teenagers.

“It’s exciting for me to share this with my daughter,” McPheeters said. “She’s just starting to learn about this in civics class.”

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stephen.braun@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Garnering women’s support

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Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is trying to widen a gender gap in the Democratic presidential race, according to recent polls.

Clinton’s ‘favorable’ ratings by gender

Women

- Favorable: 59%

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- Unfavorable: 36%

- No opinion: 5%

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Men

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- Favorable: 47%

- Unfavorable: 49%

- No opinion: 5%

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Total

- Favorable: 53%

- Unfavorable: 42%

- No opinion: 5%

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May not add up to 100% due to rounding.

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Clinton’s ‘favorable’ ratings by party affiliation

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Percentage saying ‘favorable’

Democrats

- Women: 86%

- Men: 79%

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Independents

- Women: 59%

- Men: 45%

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Republicans

- Women: 22%

- Men:18%

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Poll results based on interviews with 10,065 people between February 2005 and March 2007.

Source: Gallup Poll


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