IMAGE: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
Kevin Sanders  /  AP
Presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., speaks at a barbecue in Fort Madison, Iowa.
updated 10/11/2007 3:21:15 PM ET 2007-10-11T19:21:15

For Hillary Rodham Clinton to win Iowa, she'll have to get past the men challenging her for the Democratic presidential nomination and the state's tradition of turning a cold shoulder to female candidates.

Iowa is one of only two states - Mississippi is the other - that have never sent a woman to Congress or the governor's mansion. None have been tested in Iowa's presidential caucuses; any who campaigned here dropped out before the vote.

But Clinton is campaigning in large part on her gender; she noted during a swing through the state this week that she couldn't run as anything else. She is making appeals to women and the voters who support them in subtle and direct ways.

She says she's not running because she's a woman, but because she is the most qualified and experienced person for the job. But at every stop, she used her potential to break through the ultimate glass ceiling as part of her closing argument for voters to elect her.

"I was so touched the first time I shook the hand of a woman and she reached out and grabbed my hand and said to me, `I'm 95 years old. I was born before women could vote and I'm going to live long enough to see a woman in the White House!'" Clinton said in Dakota City.

As always, the story won enthusiastic applause from the assembled Iowans. She always followed up by saying she often sees parents pointing her out and telling their daughters she was proof they could be anything they want.

The pitch allows Clinton to tell voters her candidacy would break new ground in the face of opponents who are trying to portray her as part of Washington's past.

A Des Moines Register poll last Sunday showed Clinton now leading in Iowa among Democrats, with 29 percent support, up from 21 percent. John Edwards was at 23 percent, down from 29, with Barack Obama in third place at 22 percent.

Candis Drechsler of Humboldt, Iowa, had heard them all. She's seen Clinton, Obama and Edwards on their visits to her rural community in the central part of the state. She's decided to support Clinton.

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"I was not initially, simply because I wonder if in office if she'll be part of the good old boy system. I hope not," Drechsler said after posing for a picture with the New York senator and asking her to help U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq with mental problems. "I just feel like she's the most capable, most credible and it's an extra bonus she's a woman."

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Clinton spent two days campaigning with two of Iowa's best known political women - former first lady Christie Vilsack and Ruth Harkin, wife of Sen. Tom Harkin. The trio stopped at a Maid-Rite restaurant for its famous loose meat sandwiches, and Clinton chatted up their server, Anita Esterday.

It turned out that that single mother with two grown sons was working her first day at Maid-Rite, a second job she took to help make ends meet. From then on, Clinton talked about the waitress and her struggles.

"She doesn't have much to count on when it comes to retirement except for Social Security," Clinton said in Webster City as she pitched her plan for universal 401(k) accounts. "A lot of the workers are left behind, but I think we know what to do. We just need a president who believes it's important to do it."

Iowans' desire to vote for a woman is something Roxanne Conlin hears frequently. Conlin is a co-chair of Edwards' Iowa campaign, and lost a close race for governor in 1982. She attributes the defeat to her gender.

"Iowa is in some significant ways a very traditional state," Conlin said. "I see so many women who say, `For crying out loud, it's our time. We've waited so long.'"

She said she and Edwards don't try to fight that desire, but they try to convince voters that he is the most electable candidate - not because he's a man, she says, but because he's won in the South. She said she points out that Clinton represents New York and has some personal baggage that might turn off Southern voters. "Electability will be a very strong factor in the mind of Iowa participants," Conlin said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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