The big question in next year’s presidential election is whether women will stream to the polls to elect Hillary Rodham Clinton to be the first female U.S. president.

Eight out of 10 Americans recently told Gallup pollsters that they expect women voters will be the major factor that elects Clinton president a year from now.

But actual polling data shows more uncertainty. Seventy-seven percent of women have not yet made up their minds. Thirty-five million women eligible to vote did not go to the polls in 2004.

In a poll for Lifetime Networks in its 15-year, nonpartisan Every Woman Counts campaign, one-fifth of women surveyed said they are more likely to vote next year because Clinton is running. Twenty-five percent of women are paying more attention to campaign news this year solely because she is running. (The poll involved 1,003 women 18 and older who were queried by Opinion Research Corporation late last month.)

But beneath the widening expectation that the election is Clinton’s to lose, there remains huge skepticism about her. Lifetime found that three out of four women have not decided which candidate to support. A new poll by Gallup for USA Today found that 84 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of all married men — Democrats and Republicans — said they definitely will not vote for Clinton.

More significantly, 36 percent of all women and 50 percent of all men told Gallup they will not consider voting for her. The reasons varied from disdain for her marriage or her husband to uncertainty about a female as president to questions about her “likeability” and “elect-ability.”

But when Gallup matched Clinton against Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who leads the GOP pack, Clinton currently would win, 51 percent to 45 percent. (Gallup surveyed 1,024 adults 18 and over between Nov. 2 and Nov. 4.)

All polls find that young single women are Clinton’s strongest supporters. But the results reveal that older, married, upper-income women — who traditionally are more likely to vote — remain skeptical. And nearly one out of 10 women would “never” vote for a woman to be president.

Clearly, women are far more enthusiastic supporters of Clinton’s candidacy than men are. This is significant because, in 2004, 54 percent of the voters were women. This year, women say they are more inclined to elect a Democrat than a Republican, largely because of the war in Iraq and dissatisfaction with President Bush. Clinton has raised more money than any other candidate.

The fact remains that even though it is rapidly becoming “conventional wisdom” that it is “inevitable” that Clinton will be elected, most voters are not yet convinced she should be president. If 50 percent of men tell pollsters they won’t even consider voting for her, is it possible that even more feel that way? Secretly, do more women dislike her than are willing to tell pollsters?

The gender brouhaha that erupted briefly after the last Democratic debate, when some of Clinton’s most zealous supporters complained that the males were “piling on” to criticize her, did her harm. After all, she is the front-runner and their job is to put her on the defensive, especially when she waffles.

Ultimately, she had to step in and insist she could take the heat and was glad to be in the kitchen. The silly decision to push a perception that she was unfairly treated was a bad glitch. It showed that her greatest strength in 2008 — being a Democratic woman — may be her potential weakness, even in an era of political correctness. Old stereotypes and prejudices still lurk beneath the surface.

Clinton herself can be ambivalent. She has said, “I am not running as a woman.” She has said, “I am very excited that I am running and I happen to be a woman.” And she has said she is running to do work important to women, “women whose voices too often just get lost in the political debates and all the partisanship.”

Clinton still has to prove she’s tough but not too tough — a decisive, competent, experienced woman who is warm and approachable. It’s a path strewn with many stones and roots that could trip her. There’s no one to lead her, no precedent to follow.

She has to rely on her own instincts to get the votes of those 77 percent of women who haven’t decided she’s their woman in ’08 and those 35 million eligible women who didn’t vote in ’04.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)

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