Politics & Government

Clinton courting non-voting women

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton includes a biographical section on her campaign Web site titled "Mother and Advocate." On the issues she is called "A Champion for Women." She also has a calculator for women to enter their age, race, education level and home state to learn how much money they are losing for want of an equal-pay law.

Those are but a few of the campaign's small tips of the hat to women, the largest segment of the electorate and a crucial component of Clinton's strategy to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency. "A big piece of what we're working on is finding ways to reach women," said Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to the campaign.

But in addition to targeting women voters, her campaign is going after a far more elusive goal: women who have not even registered to vote. Surveys show the former first lady far outstrips her rivals among registered women voters, but also among unregistered women, a fat target that includes 21 million people under the age of 44.

"What we have seen everywhere is that women are giving Sen. Clinton anywhere from an 8- to 15-point gender gap advantage, and it's greater among younger women," said Maren Hesla, the Women Vote director at Emily's List. "For her and for groups like Emily's List to be able to target unregistered women - to get them registered and mobilized - only adds to her margins." Emily's List, which backs female candidates who support abortion rights, has endorsed Clinton.

A recent national poll by Quinnipiac University, for example, shows Clinton leading the Democratic primary race with 32 percent. She has a 14-point advantage over Sen. Barack Obama, an 18-point advantage over former Vice President Al Gore and a 20-point advantage over former Sen. John Edwards, thanks in large part to women voters.

In New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign has invited unregistered women to events with the senator, hoping to get them involved and excited about the candidate. The campaign also is courting registered women voters, who outnumber male voters in the state by five percentage points.

Appealing to unregistered voters is one of the hardest tasks in politics, and it suggests the lengths Clinton is going to find untapped resources and capitalize on her status as a serious woman candidate.

Making the job more challenging, unregistered women tend to be younger, often move around a lot and may be at some economic disadvantage, making it harder for them to find the time to register and vote. But Page Gardner, president of Women's Voices, Women Vote, which tries to get single women involved in politics, said busy women voters could easily make the difference between winning and losing.

"They are the ballgame," Gardner said. "What we have found is that at the end of the day, if you go to them and make it easier for them to register, they will. If you talk about their lives, that's motivational. They're incredibly civic-minded. They care a lot about this country. They know they should register, they know they should vote."

Other Democratic candidates also are reaching out to women. Obama's campaign is holding women's house parties across the country on May 19, with the Illinois Democrat's wife, Michelle, calling in to address the gatherings. Former Sen. John Edwards' campaign soon will be launching "Women for Edwards." And all of the candidates say they are addressing issues that affect women's lives.

While Republican presidential candidates are trying to reach women voters, too, this segment of the electorate is somewhat more likely to favor Democrats. For example, women voted in high numbers in the 2006 midterm elections, helping Democrats win back control of the House and the Senate from Republicans. That has set off a particularly intense scramble for women's votes among the Democratic presidential contenders.

But even some supporters of other candidates acknowledge that Clinton, as the strongest, most viable, female presidential contender in U.S. history, has a head start.

"I don't think there's any question that many, many women are very excited about Hillary's run for the presidency," said Kate Michelman, a senior adviser to Edwards and longtime advocate for abortion rights. "She has an advantage in the sense that she's inspired attention on the part of women who are excited by this historic possibility. I have to say that's an advantage initially."

Michelman added, "What I don't think, though, is that that means that she doesn't have to work to earn the women's vote."

Clinton does not appear to be taking women for granted. Mark Penn, the campaign's chief strategist, points out that 54 percent of voters in the last election were women, and he expects that 55 to 60 percent of all Democratic primary voters will be women.

"I think they are one of the critical core components of support," Penn said. "They are no longer the minority of voters but in fact the majority of voters."

Since Clinton announced her candidacy, her campaign has begun a viral e-mail effort asking 100 women to e-mail 100 of their friends, sending personal missives as to why they are supporting Clinton.

That has created a national e-mail network that the campaign uses to send out weekly "HillGrams" describing issues that Clinton is working on, such as children's health initiatives and legislation to make sure that rape victims get emergency contraception when they get to the hospital. One recent message, sent out May 7, touted Clinton's attempt to repeal congressional authorization for the Iraq war as a sort of Mother's Day present for women worried about the war.

The campaign often reinforces the HillGram messages with events on the campaign trail. One recent HillGram, for example, highlighted Clinton's legislation requiring equal pay for equal work.

At the same time, Christie Vilsack - wife of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and an important Clinton supporter - stood on the steps of the state Capitol in Des Moines with two cakes, one whole and one missing 23 percent. Saying women make 23 percent less than men for the same work, Vilsack urged support for Clinton's bill.

Clinton's campaign also is creating "affiliate councils," such as Businesswomen for Hillary, which will be led by Judith McHale, the former chief executive of Discovery Channel owner Discovery Communications Inc. Tennis legend Billie Jean King will head a "Council of Champions" for women who are first in their field. The campaign has been announcing "Women for Hillary" groups in individual states with long lists of prominent women who have endorsed the New York senator, including the first woman firefighter in New Hampshire.

Still, the other presidential campaigns say they are not ceding women voters.

Ertharin Cousin, a senior adviser to Obama, described the Illinois senator's approach as "take no voter for granted." She said she expects that as women voters get to know Obama, they will come to like him.

"There has been a lack of information about our candidate because of his relative newness on the national stage," Cousin said. "That can be overcome with information."

And Michelman said she believes that women voters are listening to Edwards' views, not just to Clinton's.

"When women look at the plans of the next president, gender will still be a factor for many, but I don't believe it will be the only factor," Michelman said.

But Clinton strategist Penn said busy working women who haven't found the time to vote in the past are going to be key to the candidate's success.

"I think it's one of the reasons why, despite all of these polls and all of the stories about her opponents, that her lead and her base has held up," Penn said.

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