As guests arrived at the sprawling Maryland home of Patricia and Vershan Scales Monday night, they were given a "Hillary for President" pin and bumper sticker in exchange for their contact information, which would eventually find its way back to a database at the Clinton campaign's headquarters.
About 75 people, mostly middle-age black women, showed up at the Scales' home to watch the Democratic debate — and to size up New York Sen. Hillary Clinton as a presidential contender.
It was one of 400 house parties the Clinton campaign helped organize across the country to coincide with the Monday night debate. While Clinton could boast twice the number of women-organized voter parties than were held for rival Illinois Sen. Barack Obama last month, Clinton's vision for the country wasn't necessarily accepted wholesale by attendees.
Some made their allegiance clear.
"Women have a unique opportunity to put a woman in the White House with Hillary. She's extraordinary," said Patricia Scales, a retired business owner and educator, who co-hosted the party with her longtime friend Shawna Francis Watley.
For others, the Democratic field still has some parsing to do before a viable candidate emerges from the pack.
"I'm still weighing my options," said Hilda Hudson, 39, a government worker.
Clinton Campaign Targeting Women
Scales said matter-of-factly, "Look, some people just don't think about politics and we're trying to get the dialogue going."
It's a dialogue the Clinton campaign is hoping to lead as it looks to attract women like Scales and Watley, both black, hoping they, in turn, will be able to persuade a diverse network of voters to support Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The campaign launched a major women's outreach effort, "Women for Hillary," tapping women who support Clinton to reach out to their social and professional circles on behalf of the senator.
In June, Women for Hillary held a fundraiser in Washington, D.C. With 300 women in attendance, the luncheon raised $150,000 for Clinton's campaign.
Outreach to women voters, who made up 54 percent of the nation's electorate in the last presidential election, isn't unique to the Clinton campaign.
Both Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards have made recent strides toward engaging the women voters.
But, says Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to Women for Hillary 2008, unlike Obama and Edwards the Clinton camp considers women its key voting base.
Traci Blunt, who works to target women of color as part of Clinton's campaign efforts, agrees.
"For African-American women, our relationships are based on trust so it's important they hear from women they trust about the policies she stands for and what kind of woman she is," said Blunt.
Additionally, Blunt said: "We have to find people where they are to motivate them for Hillary."
Blunt is referring to the Clinton campaign's extensive efforts to target special subgroups of women — nurses, businesswomen, young women, women of color, female politicians, etc. — to align them with Clinton's 2008 platform.
Many Women at House Party Remain Undecided
However, most of those interviewed at Monday night's debate party said they hadn't yet chosen a candidate to support and that their friends had little influence in their political choices.
"I'm not a follower. I pay attention to detail and make a conscious decision of my own," said Judy DuBose, a friend of Scales'.
Janet Lane, a public relations professional and neighbor of Scales', expressed a similar sentiment: "I don't vote the way my friends vote."
Lane added that she's eager to see which Democratic candidate has a viable chance of beating a Republican nominee. While she leans toward Clinton, Obama or Edwards, Lane worries about a Clinton "dynasty."
"There is some baggage there," Lane said of Clinton's failed attempt to bring about health-care reform in the 1990s.
Even Vershan Scales, who donned a "Hillary 2008" button as he greeted guests at the door, said he was leaning toward Clinton or Obama.
"I like the way he's inspiring young people," Scales said of Obama.
Others worried Obama doesn't have enough experience.
"He's too young, too inexperienced and this country's not ready for a black president," said Michael Frazier, a black voter and professor of public administration at Howard University.
"There's a lot of people who look like him but they can't identify with him," said Frazier, suggesting Obama will have difficulty mobilizing lower-income blacks who do not regularly turn out to vote.
Clinton's Gender Gap Among Leaning Democrats
According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday, this month Clinton has improved her standing among men who lean Democratic — with 40 percent of men and 49 percent of women polled supporting her.
The poll found that Obama had the support of 26 percent of men and 33 percent of women who lean Democratic.
Other polling indicates that Clinton faces skepticism among some women, especially those who are married and older.
Clinton's 'Negatives Are Deep'
"[Clinton] comes off as particularly cautious in a way that, while it's understandable, does cost her with women who are looking for realness, spontaneity, sincerity," said Melinda Henneberger, author of "If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear."
Henneberger interviewed 234 women in 20 early primary voting states about their political beliefs for her book.
She said many women, especially those who are white, married and upper-middle class, had deep doubts about Clinton's sincerity.
"Her negatives are deep and pretty diffuse," said Henneberger. "What I heard again and again was, 'She's so calculated.'"
Two Visible Democratic Women Work Against Clinton
Two very visible women on the Democratic campaign circuit were working against Clinton last week: Elizabeth Edwards and Michelle Obama.
And if their husbands weren't her Democratic rivals, Edwards and Obama might have been just the kind of supporters the Clinton camp would look to court.
Their campaign clout gaining by the day, both Edwards and Obama stumped for their spouses, taking thinly veiled shots at Clinton and each proclaiming her own husband as the best candidate for women.
In Boca Raton, Fla., Obama talked about the difficulties facing working women in finding the work-life balance. In the current system, she cited finding affordable child care, quality education and health care in a list of resources that aren't being addressed and changed.
Her message to women voters was one-part stump speech, two-parts Clinton-directed swipe.
"I hope people will vote based on who they think the best person for the job at the time will be. Just as many people would be upset if black people said, 'I'm voting for Barack because he's a black guy.' We have to think more broadly about what this country needs, and it doesn't necessarily have a gender or race."
Last week, Edwards told online magazine Salon that as president her husband would be a better champion for women.
"Sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women's issues," she said. "I'm sympathetic — she wants to be commander in chief — but she's just not as vocal a women's advocate as I want to see. John is."
Who Is the Better Advocate for Women?
During the debate Monday night, John Edwards reiterated his wife's point, trying to position himself as the best candidate for women.
"Sen. Clinton has a long history of speaking out on behalf of women. She deserves to be commended for that. But I believe that on the issues that directly affect women's lives, I have the strongest, boldest ideas and can bring about the change that needs to be brought," said Edwards.
During Monday's debate, Clinton quickly turned a question about gender into a question about experience.
"I'm running because I think I'm the most qualified and experienced person to hit the ground running in January 2009," said Clinton, a common campaign message intended to distinguish her experience from Obama's.
"When I'm inaugurated, I think it's going to send a great message to a lot of little girls and boys around the world," Clinton said during the debate.
While Clinton's debate responses were met by muted cheers at the house party, general sentiment indicated the presidential field still has miles to go in winning over its electorate.
"The rubber hasn't hit the road yet," said Janet Lane. "Once the field clears a bit then we'll see what they're gonna do."