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Message, not gender, turns voters off Clinton

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Voters are not turning their backs on Hillary Clinton because of doubts about a woman in the White House but rather turning on to the optimistic message of her rival Barack Obama, according to some experts on gender and leadership.

The 46-year-old senator with his wife and two young children makes Clinton, a 60-year-old political veteran, seem outdated to some voters, they said.

Clinton lost caucuses in Iowa last week to Obama and has seen her poll lead overturned going into Tuesday’s Democratic primary in New Hampshire, part of a state-by-state process by which parties choose a candidate for president.

Victory in November’s election to succeed U.S. President George W. Bush would make Clinton the first U.S. female president after 43 male heads of state.

But that possibility could be fading if primary voters opt for the promise of hope and change projected by Obama over Clinton’s experience and readiness to lead.

Those issues rather than gender will determine whether the U.S. senator from New York and wife of former President Bill Clinton stands or falls, according to Naomi Wolf, author of the 1991 bestseller “The Beauty Myth” and other books.

“None of the polling or the focus groups indicate that people are ... (snubbing) her because she is a woman but because of a deficit in how she is projecting leadership,” Wolf said.

“If anything, she is too entrenched, too competent a leader. She ... has been on the world stage and people (voters) are sick of people who are ... on the world stage,” she said.

Obama captured overwhelming support among young voters in Iowa. Clinton, on the other hand, was flanked by politicians from years past on the night of the Iowa result, including her husband and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

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Clinton, a successful lawyer in Arkansas before Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, and Obama play down their symbolism as potential ‘firsts’ as presidents. But one surprise of the 2008 race is that Iowa and New Hampshire voters appear more enthused by the dream of a groundbreaking black president than a first female one.


Even if U.S. feminists can chew on many issues such as workplace constraints and lack of widely available cheap child care, few female voters view Clinton as a “standard bearer” for their cause because women span the spectrum of opinion and leaders already seek out their votes by responding to some of their concerns, Wolf said.

She cited the focus by politicians including Bush and Bill Clinton on middle-class “soccer moms” who care about education, health care and crime.

“What matters is to be comfortable and run the race that you believe in because you can’t please everybody,” said Victoria Budson, head of the Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program.

In an ideal world, Clinton would be judged on her merits rather than her gender but this was unlikely to happen, she added.

Clinton faced a struggle her rivals rarely confront to balance the appearance of toughness with a softer quality U.S. voters look for in female politicians, said academic Barbara Kellerman, who published “Women in Leadership” in 2007 and has written numerous other books on the subject.

Clinton’s congressional vote in 2002 to authorize war in Iraq made her appear tougher on national security than some rivals. But she is also accused by critics of being cold and failing to show emotion, traits that in a male politician might be interpreted differently.

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Debate over Clinton’s style resurfaced at a campaign event on Monday when she became uncharacteristically emotional and teary-eyed as she described why she was running and the obstacles she faced.

Political comment ranged from sympathy to charges she was faking the emotion.

Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin suggested on her political blog “The Tears of a Clown” should be Clinton’s new campaign song.

Kellerman said it would be a mistake to blame Clinton’s style if she lost the nomination because until recently that same style had won her front-runner status among the Democratic candidates.

“If her candidacy does not succeed I hope that women will learn the right lessons from her defeat and not make overarching conclusions about how impossible it is (for women) to get to the top,” she said.

Editing by Frances Kerry