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Female trouble?

George McGovern spoke volumes when he called for Hillary Rodham Clinton to drop out of the race for the White House. By John Mercurio, National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

Former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., spoke volumes on Wednesday.

As votes were still being tallied in Indiana and North Carolina, McGovern — a Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter who nonetheless predicted in March that it would be harder for a woman to be elected president than a black man — was urging her to drop out. He was, in effect, helping make his own prediction come true.

Indeed, Clinton’s win/loss record Tuesday did little to calm party leaders, including McGovern, who now just want her to get out of the way.

Yet perhaps her biggest problem this week wasn’t the largely male group of insiders, but the largely female group of voters that has formed her most reliable base. While she won Pennsylvania last month with a healthy 14-point advantage among women, that support drifted away Tuesday. She lost women to Barack Obama by 12 points in North Carolina and led him by only 4 points in Indiana.

When political obituaries are written about Clinton’s campaign, supporters will try to make the case that, as a woman, she faced enormous — and ultimately insurmountable — hurdles. That’s partly true. Listen to any cable news talk-show anchor, if you can, and you’ll come to appreciate how fundamentally acceptable it still is to treat Clinton in a way few would dare discuss Obama. And yet, given the historic success that other women are enjoying at the ballot box this year, in competitive races against well-funded men, it’s hard to see how Clinton, given her own strengths, will be able to lay much blame for her imminent defeat on her gender.

Take this week’s primaries. In Indiana, former Rep. Jill Long Thompson (D) won her primary bid to become her state’s first female governor. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, as Obama was scoring a landslide win over Clinton, Democrats made historic choices to rally strongly behind two women — one (Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue) to be that state’s first female governor, the other (state Sen. Kay Hagan) to challenge yet another woman, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R), who in 2002 became the state’s first woman senator. Hagan is North Carolina’s first female Democratic Senate nominee.

In recent special elections, women have picked up two seats (one in Massachusetts, one in California) in a House that’s currently run by a woman, and they’re poised to pick up a third House seat next month in Maryland. Pro-choice Democratic women are running competitive, well-funded races in seven of the 12 most vulnerable GOP open seats, according to EMILY’s List, which is enjoying greater success in recruiting, fundraising and electoral wins than in any cycle in recent memory.

To be sure, Clinton worked hard to minimize voters’ concerns, dating back to her decision in 2001 to seek a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and, some would argue, her vote to authorize the Iraq war in 2002 and her promise to “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel. The woman who launched her presidential campaign almost 500 days ago by asking voters to have a “chat” was soon tossing back whiskey shots in country bars while surrogates talked about her “cojones” and “testicular fortitude.” She "makes Rocky Balboa look like a pansy,” North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said of her recently.

Still, Clinton supporters are already preparing to make the case that Clinton’s fatal flaw was not her own, but society’s lingering reluctance to fully embrace the prospect of a woman as commander in chief.

“If there weren’t challenges that women faced running for office, EMILY’s List wouldn’t exist,” Ramona Oliver, the group’s communications director, said Wednesday. “Her gender has always been a factor in the race, clearly -- in the media coverage of her, the sexist treatment of her, the double standard.”

Gender was certainly on Clinton’s mind Wednesday evening at a fundraiser for women donors in Washington. Entering to the song “I’m Every Woman,” she suggested that the central reason she refuses to quit this race is because of the potentially historic role she could play for women. “Too many people have fought too hard to see a woman continue in this race, this history-making race, and I want everybody to understand that,” she said.

Oliver said women, despite recent trends that suggest otherwise, will continue to stand up with Clinton, until she decides to stand down.

“She has decided to continue on in this race, which means we continue on in this race, doing whatever it is to help her,” Oliver added. “She has been counted out I don’t know how many times before, and if women candidates got out of races every time someone said, ‘It’s over and you can’t win,’ there would be no women in Congress.”

Perhaps. But at this point, with so much at stake in this presidential campaign, is that enough of a reason to continue?