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The cold shoulder

With Hillary Clinton, BarackObama, and John Edwards all closely bunched, the result in the January 3 Iowa caucuses may turn on the question that long ago stumped Sigmund Freud: What do women want?
/ Source: National Journal

Aides to Sen. hastily broke out the cookies and doughnuts to fill some time after bad weather delayed former President Clinton's arrival at a rally in this comfortable university town earlier this week.

While the small crowd milled and munched, Suzanne Zilber, a local psychologist, spoke with passion about the prospect of electing the first woman president. She recalled that her daughter Charlotte, now 12, had been confused and disappointed when she saw only men as she looked through a sticker book about U.S. presidents a few years ago.

Zilber remembers telling her daughter that Hillary Clinton was the woman most likely to break that barrier; now Charlotte is volunteering in Clinton's campaign and Zilber is committed to support Clinton in next month's crucial first-in-the-nation caucus. "The fact that Hillary has been able to make it this far, given the barriers she's faced as a woman," Zilber said, "speaks to her strength and experience."

Two days earlier, at the massive -Oprah Winfrey rally in Des Moines, Kristi Hebel was equally enthusiastic about electing a woman president -- but utterly convinced that that woman should not be Clinton. "I would love to have a woman in the White House, and she's experienced and very smart," said Hebel, a saleswoman from nearby Ankeny. "But as far as a woman representing me as a woman -- uh-uh.... She seems so programmed."

With Clinton, Obama, and all closely bunched, the result in the January 3 Iowa caucuses may turn on the question that long ago stumped Sigmund Freud: What do women want? In most polls, in most places, Democratic women have strongly preferred Clinton. In the latest national Pew Research Center survey, for instance, she led Obama among women by more than 2-to-1.

Like the weather, though, Clinton's reception among women voters has been much chillier in Iowa. The latest Des Moines Register survey found Obama slightly ahead among women here. Some other recent surveys (such as Pew's) have provided Clinton a narrow advantage. Either way, women aren't nearly as great an asset for Clinton in Iowa as they are elsewhere. That's critical because the latest polls usually show her trailing among Iowa men.

Why are women here so different? Clintonites note that Iowa is one of only two states (Mississippi is the other) that have never elected a woman to Congress or the Governor's Mansion. That fact reflects cultural assumptions about the role of women among both female and male voters. Conversations with some two dozen Democratic women at the appearances by Bill Clinton and Winfrey in Iowa found many dubious that American voters would elect a woman president and convinced that sexism (especially in foreign countries) would hamper her if they did.

But the conversations also unearthed more-personal doubts. Clinton's centrist positioning, especially on Iraq, alienated several women. Others saw Obama as fresh -- a clean page -- and Clinton as too scarred by the political battles of the 1990s. The skeptics' most common complaint was that Clinton is too calculating and slippery on issues -- that she's more political and less trustworthy than Obama or Edwards. J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Register's poll, says that Clinton has hardened that impression among her female critics by attacking Obama so aggressively.

But Clinton's political skills, even her willingness to throw a sharp elbow, draw other women toward her. "We're here to choose a politician, not a preacher," said Virginia Ricke, a retired elementary school teacher from Ames. "That's the only way to get things rolling." Her candidacy's sense of history attracts others. Some women who support Clinton also like the idea of a president softened by the experience of motherhood. But mostly they see Clinton as savvy and seasoned and Obama as untested and even naive.

Clinton's Iowa campaign remains convinced that boosting turnout among women, who cast 54 percent of the caucus votes in 2004, will benefit her. They are blanketing the state with women surrogates, disproportionately recruiting women as precinct captains, and arranging child care for caucus night. EMILY's List, the liberal woman's political action committee, is running a parallel online and direct-mail campaign to turn out women for Clinton. But the women's vote will benefit Clinton here only if she can dispel the doubts among them that are swirling like the snow in this arctic Iowa December.