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Will Clinton champion women's causes?

If one year ago you had asked Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University-Sacramento, whether Hillary Clinton had a good chance of being president of the United States, she would've said, "No way." Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, another well-known political analyst and professor at the University of Southern California, was only slightly more optimistic.

"A year ago, I thought she had maybe a 50-50 chance of even getting the Democratic nomination," Jeffe told me this month. "Now I look at her as the probable Democratic nominee and, if she is, the probable victor in November."

Of course, O'Connor and Jeffe acknowledged that they might have a very different appraisal in six months. But when a Field Poll was released last week showing that almost half of California Democrats likely to vote in the state primary plan to support Clinton, it didn't surprise either of them.

"This is a Hillary state, and what the Field Poll shows is rather unique to California," O'Connor said. "But it's clear that she's grown a lot as a candidate in the past months. She definitely does not look like a doe in the headlights."

The Hillary candidacy has not been marked by doe-like stereotypes of gentleness and softness. The "woman thing" isn't playing out quite the way we would have thought.

Despite the trappings of warm fuzziness in her campaign packaging - such as having her announce her candidacy online on a set that resembled a morning chat show - she has not come across as a Female Outsider along the lines of "Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington."

Instead, she is seen as the consummate insider, and that may hurt her chances with some women who want to see something different from business as usual.

Cathleen Deppe, who heads the Silicon Valley chapter of the working women's organization 9 to 5, said the jury is still out. Deppe said she is not at all sure whom she will vote for in the primary. (And 9 to 5 does not endorse candidates.)

"When you look at this through the gender lens and ask if, as president, Hillary would be a good friend to women, it's not clear," Deppe told me. "Health care is extremely important, and she's been very vague about it so far. She's keeping to the middle of the road."

The bloc of single women with a household income under $30,000 a year - the women who don't vote but could turn the tide of an election if they did - also is by no means guaranteed to go for Clinton. "This is not a group that's been lining up for Hillary in the past," said Chris Desser, San Francisco-based co-director of Women's Voices Women Vote, a non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing the participation of this bloc of women. "They gravitate to issues of poverty, health care, equal pay for equal work. So far, Obama and Edwards have had more clear messages about those things."

Still, polls show Clinton is doing well among women in general, and O'Connor has a theory about that. "I think, secretly, a lot of women really do want to see a woman as president. But they also want a winner. And that's it. Can she win?"

In the coming months, the question among Clinton's potential supporters may be: "Is she woman enough to fight hard for so-called women's issues?"

Or will she have a better chance of victory if she blurs the focus of the gender lens?

ABOUT THE WRITER

Sue Hutchison is a columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. Readers may send her e-mail at shutchison@mercurynews.com.

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