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An all-out battle for women's votes begins

Supporters view John McCain's choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for running mate a sign of gains women are making, but critics see pandering.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In 1984, Walter Mondale's choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate shattered a glass ceiling as old as the republic, thrilled feminists and helped create a gender gap among voters that has aided Democrats ever since. That was 24 years before another woman, Sarah Palin, was named to a national ticket, and this time, it is conservatives who think they have seized the political advantage.

It is unclear whether Palin, the pro-gun, antiabortion governor of Alaska, will be able to deliver a significant number of female independents and Democrats to Sen. John McCain, the man who chose her. But her selection has energized both conservative Republicans and some disaffected supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who resent that their candidate did not make it onto the Democratic ticket this year. McCain's choice also made some women, including Clinton, wary of being too critical of Palin, who managed to assume a role in national politics that they have sought for a woman ever since Mondale and Ferraro went down to defeat.

"It's basically the equivalent of a midnight raid behind enemy lines," said Juleanna R. Glover, a GOP strategist with ties to the McCain campaign. "Hillary said she made 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. Well, McCain just shattered it."

Serrin M. Foster, president of Feminists for Life, a nonpartisan group to which Palin has belonged since 2006, said the governor's sudden political ascent demonstrates how women are making gains, regardless of their ideology. "The early feminists worked for the rights of women to vote and our right to life," Foster said yesterday. "This is one more step in a long march for women's history."

Clinton herself stayed relatively quiet yesterday, issuing a crisp statement heralding Palin's position on the GOP ticket. "We should all be proud of Governor Sarah Palin's historic nomination, and I congratulate her and Senator McCain," she said. "While their policies would take America in the wrong direction, Governor Palin will add an important new voice to the debate."

Not all liberals were so cautious. Debbie Dingell, a loyal Clinton backer and the wife of Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), said she had been talking to women all day yesterday who felt "insulted" by the move. "This is just sheer political pandering," she said. "I don't think women are going to buy it."

Ellen R. Malcom, president of Emily's List, which supports women candidates, summarized the reasons for that anger: Pallin's positions on the issues traditionally pressed by women's groups. "Governor Palin and John McCain are a good match because they both want to overturn Roe V. Wade, they both want to continue the failed economic policies of the Bush administration and they both offer more of the same that has led this country down the wrong path," she said in a statement. "McCain clearly sees the power of women voters in this election but has just as clearly failed to support any of the issues that they care about."

Within minutes of Palin's announcement, NARAL Pro-Choice America sent out a fundraising appeal as well as a text message to its supporters saying the vice presidential candidate is "a member of the radical anti-choice org Feminists for Life."

Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Cecile Richards said the fact that McCain has picked a woman who is so adamantly opposed to abortion "shines a light on these issues more sharply than if he had picked just another guy."

Polling data suggest that Obama has the Democrats' traditional advantage among women at the moment. Washington Post-ABC News polling this year indicates that nearly six in 10 women call themselves either Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents, and in the latest Post-ABC poll, 55 percent of female voters supported Sen. Barack Obama, and 37 percent supported McCain.

In 2004, women went for John F. Kerry by a slim 51 percent to 48 percent but were more solidly Democratic in the three previous elections.

The extent of Palin's appeal will probably be determined by which side -- McCain's or Democratic nominee Barack Obama's -- defines the relatively unknown politician in the weeks to come. Republicans hope to portray her as a down-to-earth reformer and mother of five, who chose to sell off the Alaska governor's jet and instead drive her family around the state.

"Everyone wants to see themselves reflected in leadership," said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican who heads the Polling Company. "In politics, familiarity breeds content, not contempt."

At the Democratic convention in Denver this week, Clinton made an impassioned plea for her supporters to support Obama this November. Now McCain's choice of Palin makes it likely that Obama will call on Clinton even more, setting the stage for a full-scale battle for the women's vote just as the Democratic Party hoped it had made progress locking it down.

Senior Clinton advisers said there had always been one big card that McCain could play to exploit the rift between Clinton and Obama supporters -- and McCain played it.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton's former communications director, said Palin could peel away some votes from Obama and Biden. "Both campaigns seemed to have decided that Hillary Clinton's 18 million voters represent a key swing bloc in this election -- both Barack Obama's speech and John McCain's pick were at least partially aimed at them," Wolfson said in an e-mail. "The fact that Palin is pro-life and pro-gun will be a block for many of Senator Clinton's supporters -- but not all. And it will raise the question for many why Senator Obama didn't pick Senator Clinton as his running mate."

Interviews with women who supported Clinton suggested that the fact that McCain picked someone as conservative as Palin will be reluctant to vote for McCain, even for those who have been flirting for months with the idea of defecting to the GOP ticket.

Amilyn Lanning, who knocked on doors for Clinton near her home in Zionsville, Pa., before her state's primary, was intrigued by the idea of Palin until she did some research and concluded that she is "a cookie-cutter Republican."

"She's a little too conservative. She's very much pro-life. I don't think she's supportive of gay rights" said Lanning, who is gay and a lifelong Democrat. "It was a nice appeal, but having her versus someone like Clinton just doesn't hold any water for me."

Even Conway emphasized that women do not vote simply on gender, and Democrats such as Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) argued that McCain would have been better off tapping one of his Senate colleagues.

"Senator McCain had so many other options if he wanted to put a woman on his ticket, such as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison or Senator Olympia Snowe -- they would have been an appropriate choice compared to this dangerous choice," Boxer said in a statement, adding that when it came to Palin, "The only similarity between her and Hillary Clinton is that they are both women. On the issues, they could not be further apart."

Palin herself framed her selection in historic terms yesterday, noting it came "88 years almost to the day after the women of America first gained the right to vote," and she seemed to go out of her way to pay homage to Clinton, while declaring that she would carry on her quest to become the first woman elected to national office.

"It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America," she told the crowd. "But it turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all."

For one former Clinton supporter at least, the message hit home, and she said she will be voting for McCain. Sherry Morrison, 46, a medical billing executive who lives in Roanoke called Palin's speech "a wink and a nod to the Hillary supporters. It was, 'Hey, if the Democrats are too stupid to break that glass ceiling, we will do it for them.' "

Staff writer Krissah Williams Thompson and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.