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Could Clinton Lose Because of Women?

By Reid Wilson

From virtually the beginning of her campaign, New York Senator Hillary Clinton has made every effort to maximize her advantages among women voters. It seems a natural constituency for the first woman to climb to the top of a presidential field. Polls throughout the campaign have showed Clinton earning the support of far more women than men, giving Democrats hope that, in a general election, she would enlarge the party's traditional gender gap and cruise to the White House with stronger backing from women than any other candidate in history.

But now, as polls show her once-strong lead in Iowa slipping, the once-inevitable Democratic nominee looks human again, vulnerable to defeat from Illinois Senator Barack Obama. If Obama pulls off the once unthinkable scenario of beating Clinton, a post-mortem analysis will show it is women, once seen as Clinton's key to a guaranteed victory, who caused her defeat.

Unlike in national polls, Clinton was never an overwhelming favorite in Iowa. Her largest lead in a live caller poll, in an American Research Group poll conducted in late October, was ten points. At the beginning of November, Clinton led the RCP Iowa Average by 7.2 percentage points, as she was leading the national average by more than 25 percentage points.

Now, Clinton has seen her lead literally disappear in Iowa. Barack Obama leads the latest RCP Iowa Average by a narrow 2.3 percentage points. That change has come as Obama has moved to narrow the advantage Clinton holds among women. In fact, in most polls out of the state over the last month, the candidate who leads among women leads the overall survey.

Polls showing Clinton maintaining a slim lead over Obama, conducted by Mason-Dixon for MSNBC and McClatchy News Service (in which Clinton leads 27% to 25%) and by Zogby International (where she leads 27% to 24%) also show Clinton leading among women (by 9 points and 10 points, respectively).

Polls that show Obama taking a lead, conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News (Obama leads 30% to 26%) and by the Des Moines Register (where Obama is up 28% to 25%) have the freshman Senator leading among women, by one point and five points, respectively.

Other candidates do not enjoy nearly the support among women that Clinton and Obama do. While a small majority of Clinton's and Obama's support, in most polls, are women, most polls show former Senator John Edwards and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson polling much stronger among men than among women.

Women play an inordinately strong role in the Democratic primary field. Statistics provided by the Iowa Democratic Party show women made up 54% of caucus-goers in 2004, while some pollsters think the number could be closer to 60% this year. "On the Democratic side, women are a bigger majority of voters, so their preference is going to be a stronger predictor," said Dr. Ann Selzer, who conducts polls for the Register.

Obama's rise among women, some say, is thanks to a fundamentally different background from which the two candidates come. Clinton, a major player in Democratic politics for a decade and a half, has made it known that any effort to attack her will be met with a swift response. She has portrayed herself as tough on the campaign trail, willing to fight to get things done. Obama, by contrast, is new on the scene. He has promised to create a more open government and has emphasized compromise and hope.

"There's a real difference between the candidates in distinguishing their leadership style," said Selzer. Because of issues ranging from husband Bill Clinton's presidential library being slow to open records, to questionable fundraising practices from campaign associates like Norman Hsu, to the partisan tensions of the Clinton Administration, "people hearken back to a time when people felt like things weren't on the up and up," she said.

Obama, meanwhile, has focused much of his appeal to women on his personal story. "I know what it's like to be raised by a single mom who's trying to work and go to school and raise two kids at the same time, doesn't have any support from the father," he told the New York Times. "These are issues I'm passionate about." Michelle Obama has told audiences that her husband is "a man comfortable with strong women in his life."

Those statements are music to women voters' ears. Obama "comes across as authentic and a sympathetic figure who know women need a change," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, now a contributor to several news organizations and not associated with any campaign. "For now, he is believable, and women like honesty in a candidate."

But Clinton is by no means down for the count among women. Recently, her campaign has bombarded Iowa with prominent women supporters as surrogates, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, Ruth Harkin, wife of popular Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, and former Iowa First Lady Christine Vilsack, who is wildly popular in Democratic circles.

The candidate herself is by no means unpopular among women. "Clinton still appeals to a lot of women who want change with more experience to lead from day one," Brazile said. "While she has hit a rough patch on her road back the White House, don't count her out."

Clinton also has help in her bid for women voters. On Wednesday alone, EMILY's List, a group that backs pro-choice Democratic women candidates, dropped more than $30,000 into mailings and phone banks, bringing their total for the month of December to nearly $90,000 on Clinton's behalf. The group has also identified around 70,000 Democratic women in Iowa who voted in 2006 but did not caucus in 2004, and who either support Clinton or are undecided. If just a fraction of those women turn out, it could prove game-changing.

Obama, though, has his own arsenal when it comes to wooing women voters. Recent campaign advertisements have featured women heavily, and the campaign has used Michelle to address hundreds of women on conference calls and in small gatherings around Iowa. His biggest weapon, though, deployed last weekend at stops in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, is Oprah Winfrey. Whether or not Winfrey, whose four stops attracted more than 50,000 people, actually attracted new supporters to the race, the media attention generated by her campaign swing surely generated enough media attention to get people interested.

The battle for women's attention, if recent polls are to be believed, will likely determine the outcome of the presidential contest in Iowa. Perhaps most troubling for Clinton, while Obama's numbers among women have increased dramatically in Iowa, his support has seen a slower, but still marked, rise in New Hampshire. Clinton's numbers among women in New Hampshire, meanwhile, have seen a precipitous drop. The latest CNN/WMUR poll shows Clinton down ten points among women there in the last month, while her support has dropped only one point among men during the same period.

Obama now trails Clinton by just two percentage points in the latest RCP New Hampshire Average, and recent trends show he owns the momentum.

As women take a closer look at the race, it seems, Obama has been able to radically close the gender gap Clinton once enjoyed. The Clinton campaign is battling back hard, and whether they are successful may end up determining the outcome of this year's Democratic nomination. If Clinton wins, she will win with the support of women. If she loses, it will be because what many believed was her natural constituency abandoned her in the end.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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