Going into the general election, three components of Sen. Hillary Clinton's political coalition were believed to be up for grabs: Hispanics, blue collar (Reagan) Democrats, and -- to a lesser extent -- women. One week in, the preponderance of the attention from Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain has gone to the third group.
Last Wednesday, an event was organized at the house of Obama-backing Rep. Rosa DeLauro with the purpose of bridging the gulf that many Clinton supporters felt had emerged during the course of the Democratic primary. Approximately 30 female lawmakers were in attendance, according to a source who was there, in addition to Anita Dunn, a high-ranking Obama adviser. No official from the Clinton campaign showed up, but several of her top-ranking surrogates did.
Discussed were proposals to help show and generate unity between the two camps, as well as possible mechanisms for bringing disaffected female voters back into the fold. These included a joint op-ed written by Obama and Clinton supporters and a major address on female issues by the Democratic candidate. Nothing concrete was decided.
"There was a feeling that [Clinton's] female voters were hurt by the way the primary ended," said the source. "Not because of anything Obama did. But because of the way the media treated her candidacy."
But while the DeLauro house meeting was a private affair, Obama's concern that Clinton backers, particularly females, could defect to McCain is decidedly public knowledge. A few days later, at a fundraiser in Philadelphia, the Senator offered up an "I feel your pain" moment to all those who had worked on Clinton's behalf, relaying a message he had told her on the trail.
"You're the only one who knows what I've gone through and I'm the only one who knows what you've gone through," Obama said of Clinton.
The competition for her supporter's support has not been one sided. McCain devoted much of his weekend to widening his political tent to include disaffected Clintonites. On Saturday, his campaign released a list of 40 or so "prominent Democratic and unaffiliated leaders and activists" who now supported his candidacy, including several not-too-high-ranking former Clinton aides. The Arizona Republican then hosted a virtual town hall meeting in which he devoted a lengthy amount of time and words to praising the one-time Democratic frontrunner.
"I've had the pleasure of serving in the U.S. Senate with Sen. Clinton," McCain declared. We are of different political philosophies in many respects, but on the Senate Armed Services Committee, we worked together on many issues, and I respect and admire the campaign she ran. Everyplace I go, I am told that Sen. Clinton inspired millions of young women in this country. And not just young women, but young Americans."
To drive the point home (both subtly and overtly) McCain took six straight questions from women and promised a "dramatic increase" in the number of women in federal government posts during his presidency.
But for all the efforts being put in by both campaigns, it is not entirely clear how fluid the female vote will be in 2008. While George W. Bush was able to win 48 percent of this constituency in 2004 -- up five percent from 2000 -- female voters have long been considered a dependable Democratic bloc. And as the Huffington Post's Seth Colter Walls reported last week, the perception that Obama somehow has a "suburban women" problem seemed, statistically speaking, a bit overstated.
Moreover, as Frank Rich of the New York Times dutifully noted in his Sunday column, the political crossover between traditional preferences of female voters and policies offered by McCain is slim if non-existent.
"How heartwarming," Rich wrote of McCain's efforts to court Clinton's female supporters.
"You'd never guess that Mr. McCain is a fierce foe of abortion rights or that he voted to terminate the federal family-planning program that provides breast-cancer screenings. You'd never know that his new campaign blogger, recruited from The Weekly Standard, had shown his genuine affection for Mrs. Clinton earlier this year by portraying her as a liar and whiner and by piling on with a locker-room jeer after she'd been called a monster. "Tell us something we don't know," he wrote.
But while the McCain campaign apparently believes that women are easy marks for its latent feminist cross-dressing, a reality check suggests that most women can instantly identify any man who's hitting on them for selfish ends. New polls show Mr. Obama opening up a huge lead among female voters -- beating Mr. McCain by 13 percentage points in the Gallup and Rasmussen polls and by 19 points in the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey.
Even before McCain's virtual town hall meeting, one of Clinton's more prominent female supporters was laying out the anti-McCain case even more succinctly.
McCain's platform, said Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, is "antithetical to the causes that Sen. Clinton and many women have fought for."