WASHINGTON — A gender gap is growing in the Democratic presidential race, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton aims to widen it into a chasm.
Armed with mounting evidence that women are providing her a strong foundation in the crucial early months of the run-up to next year's primaries, Clinton's campaign is trying to organize almost every aspect of the Democratic women's voting bloc -- including lining up the support of feminist elites and stoking excitement in teenage political neophytes.
When the New York senator speaks to audiences crowded with women, she unabashedly depicts her candidacy as a historic opportunity to elect the first female president.
"Now is the time to break the biggest glass ceiling in the land," a beaming Clinton said last week after her endorsement by the National Organization for Women's political action committee, one of several influential women's activist groups that have rushed to endorse her campaign.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
War vote: An article in Saturday's Section A on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's support among women said it had been six years since she voted to authorize congressional backing for the war in Iraq. As the story noted elsewhere, the vote was five years ago, in 2002.
In contrast to the broader electorate, where, in 2006, women accounted for 51% of votes cast, women represent as much as 60% of registered voters in early Democratic primary and caucus states. And early surveys show Clinton ahead of her male rivals among women in every early primary and caucus state.
Nationally, a Zogby survey in late March found that Clinton outstripped her competitors, leading with 42% of likely primary voters among Democratic women, compared with 19% for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and 15% for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Clinton held a much thinner lead among male Democratic voters. At 28%, she barely edged Obama, who was at 26%, with Edwards trailing at 11%.
"We've really seen a constituency form around her," said Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist and pollster. "One of the things people don't realize is she has a solid base -- among women -- that's harder and much more enthusiastic than anyone else has."
She shows strength among independent women as well. A Gallup survey released Monday showed that nationally, 59% of female independent voters have a favorable image of Clinton -- compared with 45% of male independents.
Even Republican women view her slightly more favorably than do Republican men, though she ranks low with both groups, the poll found.
Just as Clinton is the first female candidate with a real shot at the White House, her openly gender-based strategy also explores new political territory. It is aimed at tapping into her loyal female base for energy and money and winning over Democratic women who might differ with her on specific policies, doubt her electability or simply dislike the controversial former first lady.
"The women's vote is not monolithic," said Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group, who is backing Edwards.
But Michelman concedes that Clinton is quickly locking up the top echelon of women's movement leaders. The support of women's political groups such as EMILY's List and NOW means more than bragging rights. They offer ready campaign cash and PAC structures that fund media campaigns targeting women, voting and fundraising databases, and operatives who can aid in primary day turnout.
One potential hurdle in monopolizing women's support is Clinton's response to the war in Iraq, which could hurt her in primary states where war opposition flares. Her refusal to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing congressional support for the war has nudged some disenchanted Democratic women to consider rival campaigns.
"The one person I'm not looking at is Hillary Clinton," said Meg Hirshberg , a New Hampshire Democrat and prominent fundraiser. "She hasn't been clear and consistent. Right now, the war in Iraq overrides everything else."
Clinton's 6-year-old war vote could also hurt her among unmarried and working class women -- a growing segment of economically stressed voters who have long excited Democratic Party strategists as a potent bloc, but who have turned out in underwhelming numbers in past elections.
New Hampshire's blue-collar female voters proved receptive to a fierce antiwar campaign in November that won a congressional seat for novice Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. Clinton's war posture "could leave her looking hazy on Iraq and cut into that support," said Jennifer Donahue of St. Anselm College's New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
Clinton aides insist that recent polls show little evidence of widespread antiwar opposition to her campaign. Female voters in primary states appear willing, they say, to accept her nuanced strategy to force an end to the war while keeping a skeleton force of U.S. troops in the Mideast to counter terrorists and support Iraqi defense forces.