Obama courts female vote with his family stories

Times Staff Writer

Democrat Barack Obama renewed his outreach to female voters Wednesday, just as Sarah Palin was on the verge of becoming the Republican Party’s first female vice presidential nominee.

Speaking under a hot summer sun to a largely female crowd in this small Ohio town, Obama spoke of the struggles his mother and grandmother had endured. And he promised to push legislation that would ensure equal pay for women should he win the White House.

The Illinois senator was introduced by a student at Kent State University’s Tuscarawas Campus who said she was studying to be a teacher while working at a bakery to support her 4-year-old daughter and to pay off her credit card debt.


“I was raised by a mom from pretty much the same circumstances,” Obama said to those who gathered around him in the courtyard.

The Democratic presidential nominee described his mother’s efforts to finish school and earn money after she gave birth to him at age 18.

“There were times that she didn’t have enough money for groceries. And even though she was very proud and very independent, there were a couple of times growing up where she accepted food stamps to make sure we had enough food on the table,” Obama said. “It was tough. And it was pretty much tough all the way through my teenage years.”

The battle for female voters -- which Democratic presidential candidates have won in recent elections, while Republican candidates have prevailed among men -- has been a central front from the outset of the 2008 campaign.

Obama has been carefully courting that key bloc of the electorate ever since he bested New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries, which disappointed legions of women who had backed her historic bid for the White House.

Gallup surveys have shown that he is more popular among female voters than his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain. But his advantage, which was as high as 16 percentage points over the summer, had narrowed by the end of last month.

McCain’s decision last week to put Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on the GOP ticket has intensified both campaigns’ pursuit of female voters, particularly those who backed Clinton.

At the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., Palin was introduced Wednesday by two of the nation’s most prominent female business executives: former EBay chief Meg Whitman and former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina.

Republicans also held a news conference featuring testimonials from leading female GOP politicians, who extolled Palin’s work as a mother and as an elected official.

During a conference call with reporters, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said Palin would help attract more women to the GOP ticket.

“I think she is a bridge to many voters, not just women voters within our own party, but also independents and Democrats,” Davis said.

Eight hundred miles away from the Republican National Convention, in the rolling hills of eastern Ohio, Obama held a “women’s economic event” to highlight the struggles of working mothers.

During his first campaign stop in two days, Obama talked at length about his grandmother, who he said had worked her way up from the secretarial pool to become a vice president at a bank after World War II.

“I think about my grandmother and what she could have done if she had been treated equal, if she had been treated fairly,” he said.

Obama has been talking more about his upbringing as he reaches out to blue-collar voters, particularly in Rust Belt states including Ohio, where he has been campaigning ever since his nomination last week.

Later in the day at a barbecue in Dillonvale, Ohio, Obama again invoked the stories of his mother and grandmother as he spoke to about 350 supporters in a farmyard.

Sheila Krager, 58, who owns a beauty shop in nearby Steubenville, said Obama should continue to tell those personal stories if he wanted to reach female voters.

“That made a big impression on me,” said Krager, a Clinton supporter who only recently decided to back Obama.

Obama, however, is not relying solely on his biography. Last week, the his campaign began running a radio ad featuring a Planned Parenthood nurse practitioner who says McCain is “out of touch with women today.”

“McCain wants to take away our right to choose,” she says in the ad, which is airing in swing states. “That’s what women need to understand. That’s how high the stakes are.”

The Obama campaign also is reaching out to women through house parties, phone banks and online organizing. A campaign official said that on Women’s Equality Day, which is commemorated annually on Aug. 26, female Obama supporters held nearly 200 events nationwide in an effort to recruit women.


Times staff writer Maeve Reston in St. Paul, Minn., contributed to this report.