Debra Starks has heard the calls for Hillary Rodham Clinton to quit the presidential race, and she’s not happy about it.
The 53-year old Wal-Mart clerk, so bedecked with Clinton campaign buttons most days that friends call her “Button Lady,” thinks sexism is playing a role in efforts to push the New York senator from the race. Starks wants Clinton to push back.
“The way I look at it, she’s a strong woman and she needs to stay in there. She needs to fight,” Starks said at a Clinton campaign rally. “If you want to be president, you have to fight for what you want. If she stays in there and does what she’s supposed to do, I think she’ll be on her way.”
Amid mounting calls from top Democrats for Clinton to step aside and clear the path for rival Barack Obama, strategists are warning of damage to the party’s chances in November if women — who make up the majority of Democratic voters nationwide, but especially the older, white working-class women who’ve long formed the former first lady’s base — sense a mostly male party establishment is unfairly muscling Clinton out of the race.
“Women will indeed be upset if it appears people are trying to push Hillary Clinton out of the way,” said Carol Fowler, the South Carolina Democratic Party chair who is backing Obama. “If you are going to ask her to withdraw, you’d better be making a strong case for it — both to the candidate and the public.”
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy last week became the first leading Democrat to openly call on Clinton to abandon her bid and back Obama, a sentiment shared by many activists worried that a drawn-out nominating contest only bolsters Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain.
Other Obama supporters have echoed that view while stopping short of asking Clinton to withdraw.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on Sunday called Obama’s lead all but insurmountable, while Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said the contest would be reaching “a point of judgment” very soon.
“I don’t think it’s up to our campaign or any individual to tell Hillary Clinton or their campaign when that is,” Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “But there will be, I think, a consensus about it, and I think it’s going to occur over these next weeks.”
To be sure, Clinton campaign officials concede her path to winning the nomination is not at all clear.
She almost certainly will end the primary season narrowly trailing Obama in the popular vote and among pledged delegates unless the nullified primaries in Florida and Michigan are counted — an unlikely scenario at best. But Obama is unlikely to end the race with the 2,024 pledged delegates needed to win outright either, meaning the nominee will be determined by roughly 800 “superdelegates” — elected officials and party insiders who can back whichever candidate they want.
Most observers believe the superdelegates are unlikely to risk an intraparty uproar — not to mention the ire of black voters thrilled to support a black candidate — by siding with Clinton if Obama maintains his lead among pledged delegates.
But Clinton advisers believe many superdelegates remain at least persuadable, due in no small part to the influence of women voters on the party and in the general election.
“My e-mail is bursting with women who are furious, and it’s grown in the last week,” said Ann Lewis, Clinton’s director of women’s outreach and a longtime Democratic activist.
“These women are the volunteer infrastructure of the Democratic Party who’ve been proud to support Democratic officials for what they believe and stand for,” Lewis said. “They are very angry that people they’ve worked for so hard would be so dismissive of Hillary and, by extension, of them and what they value.”
Indeed, the gender gap in most of the primaries thus far has been stark.
In California, Clinton bested Obama by a margin of 59 percent to 36 percent among women. She beat him by 54 percent to 45 percent among women in Ohio, an important general election battleground state.
Obama, in turn, has walloped Clinton among men in nearly every state. But he’s prevailed among women in just a handful of places, including his home state of Illinois and states with large black populations.
For his part, the Illinois senator — whose seemingly disrespectful crack of “You’re likable enough, Hillary” during a debate with Clinton may have cost him the New Hampshire primary — said Saturday he did not believe Clinton should end her campaign.
“My attitude is Senator Clinton can run as long as she wants,” Obama said in Pennsylvania, which holds its primary April 22.
Nine more primaries follow, ending June 3.
Clinton insists she’s in it to the end, saying a “spirited contest” is good for the party and ultimately will produce a stronger nominee.
“There are millions of reasons to continue this race: people in Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina, and all of the contests yet to come,” she told reporters Friday in Hammond, Ind. “This is a very close race and clearly I believe strongly that everyone should have their voices heard and their votes counted.”
Campaigning across the state Saturday, Clinton was greeted by large, heavily female crowds that shouted “You go, sister!” and “We’ve got your back!” in support of her pioneering candidacy. Indiana votes May 6.
Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project that trains women to run for office, noted that women typically have rallied around Clinton when she’s appeared most vulnerable — from the revelations of her husband’s dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky to January’s New Hampshire primary after the bruising loss to Obama in Iowa.
“Women have always been asked to step aside if it was somehow for the greater good. In this case, Clinton, and a lot of her female supporters, clearly feel that she would make the better president and that it would not be for the greater good for her to step aside,” Wilson said.