WASHINGTON – Bracing for the biggest challenge of her life, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is leaving nothing to chance — or to her gender — to succeed in the Democratic presidential primaries next year.
Political pundits and pollsters say that's a good idea because while the numbers indicate Clinton is ahead in the polls, the women's vote can't be taken for granted.
"I think, in the primary election, she is going to have to work just as much as the other candidates to get the women's vote," said Jennifer Lawless, professor of political science at Brown University who last year ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat from Rhode Island.
"In the primary, every vote is one vote that will have to be won," she said. "The women vote will be the hardest to get in the primary."
Polling data and anecdotal evidence shows that gender matters more to women than men. It also can work against women since other women generally place higher standards on female candidates, said Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, which seeks to encourage women candidates. Women expect the first female president to be a reflection of them, only better.
"We look at them and we say 'We want them to be perfect. ...' We hold them to a higher standard because they do represent us. Most of the male candidates running wouldn't be running if they were women, she said, noting that a woman Sen. John McCain's age — 70 — would have a hard time getting the women's vote as would a woman with Sen. Barack Obama's current national political experience of two and a half years in the Senate.
Wilson said female candidates also face a more critical eye than men because many people haven't shaken their views of traditional societal roles.
"Because it's normal to see men running for something like the presidency, we don't look at things like their hair, hemlines" and spouses, she said.
“I think there is a minority of women who are not comfortable with one of our own in power,” said Linda Hirshman, author of "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World." She noted that strong women candidates, particularly those cut from the feminist cloth of the 1960s, make men and some women uncomfortable.
Clinton is currently dominating among Democratic voters in primary polls, though most pollsters say "it’s too early to tell" whether the overwhelming support from women will last.
According to one recent polling organization, Clinton’s favorability rating among women is in fact sliding. In an average of three most recent polls conducted by the Gallup organization between March 23 and April 15, 54 percent of women said they viewed the former first lady favorably. That compares to a 61 percent average of three polls taken from Nov. 9 through March 4.
Gallup also found that 38 percent of male voters approved of Clinton from March to April, while 49 percent viewed her favorably in the preceding three months. Overall, the survey of American adults found 46 having a favorable view of Clinton, a single point drop from the previous three months.
In New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation primary, Clinton led the pack of Democratic candidates among Democratic women with 35 percent, according to early April polling by Zogby International.
And in recent polls conducted by InsiderAdvantage, Clinton led her primary opponents among Democratic women voters in southern states such as Tennessee with 43 percent, Florida with 28 percent and South Carolina with 31 percent. In South Carolina, however, Obama won the voter preference poll, garnering 27 percent to Clinton's 25 percent.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who puts out the George Washington University Battleground Poll with Republican Ed Goeas, said the fact that at least 58 percent of primary voters are women "translates into (Clinton's) lead. Right now, I think she is doing fine."
"She is going to need a substantial number of women to win (the primary)," said Hirshman, a retired philosophy professor. "Any tremor or shaking in the numbers would be an ominous sight for her."
Lawless and others note that Clinton is neither the most liberal in the current field of Democratic contenders, nor is she the outsider — two characteristics typically endearing to primary voters.
The existence of several male Democratic candidates in the race does help Clinton since the others split much of the male vote, suggested Republican pollster Matt Towery, president of InsiderAdvantage.
"She is better served having more men in the primary system for as long as she can keep them in there," said Towery, who nonetheless suggested that "Obama and other Democratic candidates combined have (already) cut into Clinton's presumed advantage in regard to female voters."
Towery said Clinton is confronted with two challenges: one that undecided voters are in the double digits. "It's troublesome for her because her name ID is extraordinarily high," he said.
In addition, African-American women make up a sizable percentage of the Democratic vote, and cannot be counted on with Obama in the race. "The Clinton campaign must be thinking, 'How are we going to pull these females over to our side?'" Towery said.
Lake said another possible Achilles heel for Clinton is the mean age of primary voters. "She does better with younger than older women. The primary electorate is older. Older women are also the ones who start out strong for women candidates, in general, but then need to be reinforced at the end. So those are the voters to watch."
A 'Constellation' of Female Support
Analysts note that Clinton is not called one of the most politically astute national figures of her time for nothing. According to a recent article in The Los Angeles Times, Clinton and her aides have “assembled a constellation of former staffers and allies from women’s activist circles” to build “a formidable women’s apparatus, harnessing the passion of fervent supporters into a nationwide network of volunteers and fundraisers” to persuade women to start making that analysis.
The Hillary Rodham Clinton Support Network boasts high profile, Democratic and feminist elites. She has already received an endorsement from the National Organization for Women and the influential fundraising prowess of Emily’s List. Her active support from women’s groups reportedly represents decades of connections, dating back to her college days at Wellesley College and Yale Law and her time with the American Bar Association.
“I have always been very impressed with the extent to which Hillary Clinton has been able to attract and keep the loyalty of the women around her,” Hirshman said.
But Clinton has not been able to lock down every staple of support from feminists. Obama has been making inroads with prominent women leaders, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards recently received the endorsement of Kate Michelman, the outspoken former president of the NARAL-Pro Choice America, the country’s biggest abortion rights lobby.
“Gender’s important,” Michelman said upon endorsing Edwards in March. “But it’s not the only factor.”
Hirshman said Clinton knows she needs women voters in force to win the primary and go on to the White House.
“I think she is going to need more than the usual support from the majority of women because she is going to get less than the usual support from men and perhaps even a little less than the usual support from some women,” said Hirshman.
“I think its an interesting problem for her because the assumption is women would vote for her because they would benefit from having a woman in the White House. I think that’s true,” she added. “But you can’t count on (women) to make that analysis.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.