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In elderly women, Clinton sees electoral edge

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign is courting voters who may have been born before suffrage, hoping they might feel an emotional bond with the candidate.
Four-year-old Carly hides her face while her mother talks to Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Clinton in Exeter
Four-year-old Carly hides her face while her mother Dorine Caswell, left, talks to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton at the Loaf and Ladle restaurant in Exeter, N.H., on Monday.Brian Snyder / Reuters
/ Source: The New York Times

They usually sit in the front row — to hear her better, to see her better and to make sure they have a chance to shake her hand. Some lean on canes. Some have traveled a great distance. Some have never been to a political event before.

The first one who shared her story with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was Ruth Smith, 87. She drove 160 miles to Des Moines from Buffalo Center to attend Mrs. Clinton’s first rally in Iowa as a presidential candidate and went up to her afterward.

“I told her that my grandmother was the first person in town to vote, and my mother was the second,” said Mrs. Smith, who was born three months before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. “And I told her I was born before women could vote, and I want to live long enough to see a woman in the White House.”

Since then Mrs. Smith’s story has become a grace note in Mrs. Clinton’s stump speech. At the same time, the many other elderly women who turn out for Clinton campaign events have become welcome set pieces, visibly demonstrating the candidate’s effort to highlight her sex and her overtures to female voters, whom the campaign is counting on to propel her to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Many young women have been enthusiastic supporters, but Mrs. Clinton, of New York, has shown particular pride in the women in their 70s, 80s and 90s at her events. She spends extra time with them on the rope line and repeats their stories to audiences.

“A couple of weeks ago in New Hampshire, a woman said, ‘I’m 98 years old, this will probably be my last election, we need to hurry up,’” Mrs. Clinton recounted recently in Vinton, Iowa. “And I said, ‘I don’t know, I may need you for my re-election.’ And she said, ‘Well, my doctor just put in a new pacemaker, and she says it’s good for seven years.’”

The Clinton campaign is courting these women in Iowa as the senator seeks an edge in a three-way fight with Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and John Edwards of North Carolina to win the state’s caucuses on Jan. 3.

According to some opinion polls, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are running roughly even among female voters here; she is behind Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards among men. So the Clinton campaign hopes to find an advantage with older women, who might feel an emotional bond with Mrs. Clinton — seeing her like a daughter or seeing something of themselves in her.

In August, on the 87th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the campaign sent a letter from Mrs. Clinton thanking hundreds of female supporters who were born before ratification of the 19th Amendment. Mrs. Clinton’s weekly “Hillgram” e-mail newsletter is sometimes aimed at older women.

And in Iowa, campaign officials constantly check their numbers of elderly female supporters (currently, 479 of them are ages 90 to 110) — in part to see if they have relatives who might also become supporters.

“These women are the heart of their family network,” said Ann Lewis, Mrs. Clinton’s senior adviser on reaching out to women, “the 90-year-old mother or grandmother whose opinions really resonate all the way through the family.” Ms. Lewis added that they had come out for Mrs. Clinton in other states with early nominating contests.

In interviews with 20 women in their late 70s and 80s, most said they supported Mrs. Clinton based on qualities they saw in her — intelligence, confidence and capability — rather than her positions on issues. Many also said that her qualities would help her cope with challenges.

“I think a woman, as head of the military, would be more apt to keep our boys at home than a man,” said Dorothy Weddell, 85, who attended a Clinton event Saturday in Sac City, Iowa. “I’m a Republican, but I vote for the person. And she seems more willing to work things out and compromise.”

Several women said they had not attended the Iowa caucuses in years. Though these women said they planned to caucus for the senator, Clinton campaign aides said they were not taking anything for granted, since some people who are not regular caucusgoers skip the event at the last minute.

“I’ve never caucused before, but I never felt motivated — and then here comes Hillary,” said Gwen Whitehill, 78, of Shenandoah, Iowa. “Women have brains, just like men, and sometimes they have attributes that kind of outshine a man.”

Some older women were just as adamant that they did not like Mrs. Clinton.

“The fact that she’s a woman doesn’t matter to me,” said Katherine Smidf, 75, of Shenandoah. “Whoever’s most qualified and can do the job.” She said she preferred another Democratic candidate, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.

Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said older women were often a problem for female candidates because they came of age in different eras.

“Some of these women are going to be very divided over Clinton’s candidacy,” Professor Carroll said. “Running for president is not something women dared to do until very recently, and it’s something for voters to become comfortable with.”

Mrs. Smith, the senator’s touchstone in Iowa, said she heard doubts about Mrs. Clinton from some of her Republican friends but did not care much.

“A lot of them believe a woman’s place is by the cookstove,” Mrs. Smith said. “But I think Hillary’s a very capable girl.”