Democratic Women Take Political Spotlight

In the bitter fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, the newest Quinnipiac poll shows a tight race in Pennsylvania with women voters holding the key to a win or a loss for Hillary Clinton. Clinton is leading Obama in Pennsylvania overall 51 percent to 44 percent.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake deems women voters "absolutely critical for Clinton, they will determine who wins."

"Her margin in Pennsylvania depends very much on how much she wins women by, and they've been bouncing back and forth," Lake says.

Women have helped Clinton come back from political death in New Hampshire and helped her win big in Ohio and Texas. Now, the margins could also mean the difference between Clinton continuing forward in the presidential race or not.

A Woman's Right to Choose

For the state's Democratic women, who are split between what are seen as two appealing choices on a historic ballot, the decision has not been easy. Many make the point that they won't vote for Clinton simply because she's a woman, but gender is clearly a factor in the decision.

Lake says, "They also vote for her because they feel that she's tough, she's knowledgeable, she's in touch with their lives, so it goes beyond her gender to what she represents. And she does her best with them when she is showing that she is in touch with their lives, she's in touch with the kitchen table issues that really motivate them."

In early April, Obama did make some gains with white women -- but Obama may come up short. Today's poll finds that Clinton still holds a double digit lead among Pennsylvania women.

"Senator Obama has stopped picking up support among white women...he mined that field...and now there are not many undecided women voters left," Clay Richards of Quinnipiac University said. "[Clinton has] been winning women and the question is how much does she win them by."

Lake says three groups of Democratic women will be crucial for Clinton in Pennsylvania: single women, young women and "waitress moms" -- a non-college educated, working class group concerned about the economy.

Clinton has been redoubling efforts to reach these women voters, who have become the keystone to the life of her campaign. Over the past three weeks, female friends and supporters have held several dozen intimate house parties in the Philadelphia suburbs, specifically aimed at women.

Dissecting the Clinton Machine

At a book club meeting in State College, a liberal university town in the middle of the state, Obama supporter Pam Lehrman describes Clinton as "extraordinary" and says "as a woman I'd like to vote for a woman," but that Obama's response to recent campaign "crises," specifically the fallout surrounding his longtime pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, ultimately won her over.

Most of the book club members said they were supporting Obama, though some said they felt guilty making that decision.

"I do feel a little disloyal until I look at: Is this about the sexes or is this about who's going to run the country the best way?" Lehrman says. "And certainly, while I'd like to say I helped put a woman in the office, I'm not sure that's what we want to measure the success of this campaign on."

With the GOP nomination presumably locked up by John McCain, Pennsylvania's voting machine has seen more than 175,000 Republican and independent voters switch affiliation to the Democratic party to cast a vote in the state's closed primary.

Sue Ann Graham, who changed her party affiliation to vote for the former first lady on April 22, says Clinton has experienced gender discrimination on the road to the White House.

"I feel that no matter what she does, someone has a complaint, her hair doesn't look right, her clothing is not appropriate, or people are not necessarily looking at the issues, they're looking at Hillary as someone to complain about," she says.

Still, two of Clinton's female supporters at the book club said their support of her is "issue-based rather than totally focused on women's rights."

Supporter Ev Kepler says that while her candidacy is significant for "the cause of women and women's rights and for the advancement of women's issues, I also think she's well-qualified." Kepler cites Clinton's stance on health care and change for the middle class as among her qualifications.

A Complicated Past

But inside Pennsylvania's moderate Democratic swatch, Clinton's past could hurt her.

Casey Goodall, a self-described "child of the sixties," said she "definitely wanted to be able to vote for a woman" but that Clinton's personal past cast a heavy shadow.

"When I looked at Hillary and I saw the way she behaved and handled many of the things in her life, I couldn't in good conscience vote for her," Goodall says. "I was very disappointed with the way she handled her husband's infidelity. And I just wanted to shake her and say wake up, you don't have to act like this, you don't have to be a good wife."

Obama, Goodall says, "represents to me all the people that we were not able to see come to fruition in their terms. The JFKs, the Robert Kennedys, the Martin Luther Kings. He represents to me something larger than the women issue or the focused issues that you see so many people talking about."

Fighting Guilt at the Ballot Box

Martin, who attended a women's college, says she's conflicted about her indecision in the race.

"There's no question that I feel conflicted and if I didn't take my vote seriously, I know my husband, son and daughter are all voting for Hillary, so I would vote for Hillary just to assuage that guilt," she says.

"But at the end of the day what we were fighting for was to be treated equally, not preferentially, and so when I think about it in that way, I have to say that Hillary has to make that case on her own."

Martin's concerns surrounding the election are not that this is the last best shot for a woman to climb to the White House, but rather that the Republicans' voter outreach will trump Democratic efforts in November.