The bleachers told the tale of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s gender gap.
Women outnumbered men by more than 3-to-1 as she stood on a simple stage inside a farm shed and brushed aside the male rivals who have been attacking her of late.
“Now, with two months left, 60 days left until the caucus, things are going to get a little hotter,” Clinton said here Saturday.
“Harry Truman said, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,’” Clinton said. “Well, I feel real comfortable in the kitchen …”
The crowd went wild with applause. She had taken a simultaneous swipe at an old gender stereotype and the male rivals whom her campaign has accused lately of “the politics of pile-on.”
This is Clinton’s comfort zone. Every top presidential contender has one.
When the New York lawmaker needs an energy infusion, as she did after a widely panned debate performance last week, she’s sure to get it from crowds of women and young girls who see her as a role model and flock to her public events.
It’s no wonder Clinton showed up at her all-women’s alma mater, Wellesley College in Massachusetts, the day after an MSNBC debate in which she was attacked repeatedly by her lead rivals in the Democratic presidential race, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
“In so many ways, this all-women’s college prepared me to compete in the all-boys club of presidential politics,” Clinton reportedly told the Wellesley students.
Her male rivals have their comfort zones, too.
When wonks start wondering if Obama’s “Hope” movement might be stalling, he need only return to a college campus, where young people routinely turn out by the thousands.
When Edwards slips in the polls, he heads to the countryside, where he finds hog barns and rural firehouses where his down-home drawl seems right at home.
Clinton’s safety zone is clear to see in the polls, which routinely show her with a better than 2-to-1 lead among Democratic women voters. Last month, her chief strategist, Mark Penn, suggested that in a general election she could get the support of about a quarter of Republican women, thereby putting more states in play for Democrats.
Still, some see a danger for Democrats if Clinton becomes the party’s nominee without broadening her base.
Any top presidential candidate is bound to be attacked by rivals looking for traction. But that can be tricky for the male crowd going up against the first front-running female contender in U.S. history.
That could be why some of the sharpest attacks on Clinton have come from Elizabeth Edwards, whose husband is trying to narrow the gender gap.
On Friday night, appearing at the same coffee house in Newton where Clinton appeared earlier this year, Elizabeth Edwards took repeated jabs at the senator in front of a mostly female crowd.
Edwards said she was “flummoxed” trying to figure out Clinton’s views on Social Security. She linked Clinton to the unpopular North American Free Trade Agreement and the failure to win universal health care during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
And she used Hillary Clinton’s statement about the debt the United States owes to China — “How do you get tough on your banker?” — to question how Clinton could go against special-interest groups who have contributed to her campaign.
Still, Clinton enjoys enthusiastic crowds of women — as she did Saturday at stops in Oscaloosa, Des Moines and Indianola.
“It’s an old battle,” said Clinton supporter Connie Morris, 65, of Garden Grove, explaining the small number of men in the audience at the Simpson College gym in Indianola. “They think women are inferior to men, so they’ll vote for the men candidates.”
Her daughter, Rae Ellen Cloke, said she knew why men were staying away.
“Men, as you know, are pretty headstrong, and they have a hard time changing,” she said as Clinton posed for pictures with fans nearby. “If they’re here, they’re here in support of their wife.”
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at sprengelmeyerm(at)shns.com.)