Fighting to survive, Hillary Rodham Clinton is counting on female power to energize her faltering presidential bid. She’s hoping a double-digit lead among women in Ohio is the answer.
“I am thrilled to be running to be the first woman president, which I think would be a sea change in our country and around the world,” the New York senator said this week in Cleveland, emphasizing anew the pioneering aspect of her candidacy.
A woman in the White House, Clinton said, would present “a real challenge to the way things have been done, and who gets to do them and what the rules are.”
The remarks had a call-to-action flair and underscored just how much she is relying on women, always a key part of her support, to help her win Ohio and, perhaps, Texas on Tuesday as she seeks to get back on track in the Democratic nomination fight.
She has urgent reason to prod the sisterhood into action.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has racked up 11 straight wins to lead the convention delegate hunt. Clinton hasn’t won a primary in a month and is looking for big-state victories to breathe new life into her campaign.
Clinton leads in Ohio in recent polling, while Obama has a slight edge in Texas.
Women may hold the key for Clinton, particularly in the Midwestern state. Polls in the past week have shown her with a wide advantage — 17 percentage points in one poll, 18 in another — among Ohio women. She also leads among Texas women, but the margin is slimmer.
“If Hillary is going to regain the front-runner status and win the nomination, it starts with and ends with women,” said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist who is not aligned with either candidate. “She has struck a chord with women, especially in Ohio.”
On Thursday, Clinton stopped at a Bob Evans Restaurant in Rio Grande, Ohio, and made a bee line for the counter and the all-female wait staff. She posed for pictures, arms around them for a photo op worthy of the “Nine to Five” song that often is featured at her events. “I’ve waited tables before,” she told them. “That was when I was much younger.”
Ohio Democrats say women here admire her for the barriers she has broken and the troubles she had overcome. That good will, they say, coupled with the support of popular Gov. Ted Strickland and her jobs-focused economic message, has resonated with women across economic lines, education levels and ages.
The conquering-obstacles element is a theme Clinton embraced during a debate in Austin, Texas, last week, when she appeared to allude to her husband’s infidelity.
Asked to describe a moment that tested her the most, she said: “Well, I think everybody here knows I’ve lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life.” The audience clapped knowingly.
Margie Bennett, 44, a laid-off accountant from Zanesville, calls herself a feminist but says she’s been a Clinton fan for years because of who the senator is, not because she’s a woman.
“She’s a tough fighter. She’s been through a lot. And, she’s the best candidate,” Bennett said after a Clinton-led economic round-table this week.
That sounded much like the rationale Kay Israel, 67, gave minutes earlier. “I respect Hillary’s strengths as far as overcoming obstacles against all odds,” the teacher from Zanesville said. “I admire her effort to make history. She’s smart. She’s educated. She knows the issues.”
Kelly Adams, 24 and a college financial aide adviser, cited Clinton’s push for universal health care and her promise to bring jobs to Ohio as the main reasons she’s lending her support. Also, she added: “I like the strength that she’s shown and her work as first lady.”
Many women backing Obama praise Clinton’s strides as a woman, too, but they say that’s not reason enough to vote for her.
“I would love to see a woman in the White House. I just don’t think she’s the right woman,” said Ruth Ziegler, 51, a high school teacher from Newark as she waited for Obama to take the stage at Ohio State University on Wednesday. “It’s about winning and I really don’t think she can win against the Republicans.”
Her friend and fellow teacher, Linda LaRue, 54 and also of Newark, seconded those sentiments and added: “His passion speaks to me. He excites people. She just doesn’t inspire.”
It’s not surprising that women have been a primary constituency for the woman with the best chance in history to break through the highest of glass ceilings.
“If she can put the combination together for women that she understands their lives while also representing change, she’s got a lot going on there. It completely works,” said Page Gardner, the president of a group — Women’s Voices. Women Vote Action Fund — working to encourage unmarried women to participate in the political process.
While Clinton has been strong throughout the campaign among white and Hispanic women, black women overwhelmingly support Obama.
She often includes him in referring to the unprecedented character of the Democratic contest: “I believe strongly that the fact that we have an African-American and a woman running for the Democratic nomination is historical and I’m very, very proud of that.”
In recent weeks, Obama has made inroads into Clinton’s overall hold on female voters.
Before primary voting began, Clinton had an enormous lead over him among all women. An AP-Ipsos poll in December showed her with 52 percent support to 19 percent for him.
Exit polls for the AP and television networks from 22 Democratic primaries where the candidates have competed showed her with a slimmer lead among women, 51 percent to 45 percent.
The apparent erosion was acute in the most recent primaries where exit polling was conducted. Obama won among women in the Louisiana, Maryland and Virginia primaries, while the two candidates tied most recently in Wisconsin.
As she campaigns, Clinton tries to strike a balance. She often tells audiences that while she’s proud to be running as a woman, she should be elected because she’s the best candidate and not because of her gender.
Still, at pivotal times, she has campaigned alongside daughter Chelsea and mother Dorothy Rodham, and invoked an us-versus-them pitch.
“In so many ways, this all-women’s college prepared me to compete in the all-boys club of presidential politics,” she said in November at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, speaking about the challenges of being a woman in a campaign environment that men long have dominated.
The candidate has, however, struggled with just how much of her femininity to show.
After women turned away from her in Iowa, Clinton grew emotional days before the New Hampshire primary.
“This is very personal for me,” she said, adding, “Some of us are right, and some of us are not. Some of us are ready, and some of us are not.”
That moment of humility has been credited with helping her win back women who ultimately brought her victory in New Hampshire.
She hopes they deliver again Tuesday.