In the intensifying battle for the votes of Democratic women, Senator Barack Obama’s campaign is trying to turn years of feminist thinking on its head and argue that the best candidate for women may, in fact, be a man.
The pitch for Mr. Obama, in a new video, speeches and talking points aimed at women, presents him as deeply sensitized to the needs and aspirations of women, raised by a single mother, “a man comfortable with strong women in his life,” as his wife, Michelle Obama, puts it, and a man committed to the issues they care about.
The breakthrough nature of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential candidacy has a powerful appeal for many women — especially, perhaps, among the more liberal women who participate in Democratic primaries and caucuses. But even as he pursues a first of his own — a black president — Mr. Obama, like the rest of the field, has little choice but to compete for women’s votes; 54 percent of Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa four years ago were women, as were 54 percent of Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire.
Around the country, but especially in the early voting states, many of these women are engaged in a complicated conversation, with a hunger to make history often pushing them in one direction while more conventional considerations, like a candidate’s stand on the war in Iraq, pushing them in another.
The politics are complex; even as rival campaigns seek to peel away women’s votes from Mrs. Clinton, they are often careful to acknowledge and pay tribute to the broader significance of her candidacy. “Women, I think, should take pride that Senator Clinton is running, the historic nature of her race,” Mr. Obama, of Illinois, said in an interview Thursday. “That’s a genuine sign of progress.” He said he tried to convey to his two daughters every day “that you’ve got the same opportunities and shots as everybody else.”
But he quickly moved on to make the case that the candidate’s sex is not, and should not, be the deciding factor. Women, he said, “can look at a whole series of issues and know, ‘You know what? This guy’s going to fight for us, partly due to biography.’ Because I know what it’s like to be raised by a single mom who’s trying to work and go to school and raise two kids at the same time, doesn’t have any support from the father. These are issues I’m passionate about.”
Moreover, he argued, his leadership offers the best prospects for delivering on that agenda.
The gender factor is rarely addressed head-on by Mrs. Clinton’s rivals.
Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Senator John Edwards, was a notable exception when she told Salon.com last summer that Mrs. Clinton was “just not as vocal a woman’s advocate as I want to see” and relied too much on her sex as a rationale for her candidacy. But in less-noticed, more subtle ways, rival campaigns are advancing the argument that it is acceptable for a woman, even a feminist, to back someone other than the woman.
Kate Michelman, a senior adviser to the Edwards campaign and a longtime abortion rights leader, said she told women that Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy was historic and exciting, and that “we have spent a long time and traveled a long road to get to this point.” But she added, “That doesn’t bring us to the place where gender becomes the only thing or even the most important factor determining our decision.”
With just four weeks before the Iowa caucuses, in an intensely competitive battle against Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards, the Obama campaign is ratcheting up its women’s effort. It is, in some ways, a strategic counterpoint to Mrs. Clinton’s wooing of black voters, a group that can be so important in some primaries and in the general election that she cannot afford to cede it to Mr. Obama just because he is black.
This week the Obama campaign held a wave of house parties focused on women in early voting states; Mrs. Obama bluntly told 700 women activists linked by conference call Wednesday night, “We need you guys.” The campaign also announced that Oprah Winfrey, cultural arbiter for millions of women, will join the cause in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina next weekend. Mr. Obama, in the interview, described Ms. Winfrey as a “great friend” who could spur interest in the campaign, but added, “I’m not somebody who believes that her endorsement, or anybody’s endorsement, actually secures me votes.”
Some of the women supporting Mr. Obama — politically active Democrats, women who pay attention to the glass ceiling in politics — admitted that they had to overcome a few pangs to close the deal. “As a strong feminist most of my life, the question always is, How can you not support the woman candidate?” said Jean Lloyd-Jones, a longtime Democratic activist in Iowa. “And I frankly have been torn by that.”
In the end, Ms. Lloyd-Jones said she finally decided that Mr. Obama was the more progressive candidate, and her progressive instincts trumped her feminist instincts.
Monica Fischer, a consultant to nonprofit groups in Iowa, described overcoming similar conflicts before endorsing Mr. Obama. Ms. Fischer added that on the weekend of the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, “We pulled together a group of 30 undecided women to have coffee with Michelle Obama, and you could just feel people going through the same struggle I did, and coming to the point of saying, ‘I feel O.K. about this.’”
Many of these women have also been heavily courted by the Clinton campaign, including State Representative Janet Petersen of Iowa, who received a solicitous phone call from Mrs. Clinton last spring while in labor. (“It was an Iowa moment,” Ms. Petersen said.) Ms. Petersen, who signed on with Mr. Obama in September, said: “I finally went with my heart. I like his leadership style.”
The Obama campaign is, in some ways, subtly marketing its candidate as a postfeminist man, a generation beyond the gender conflicts of the boomers. In the video released this week, Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, says that Mr. Obama understands issues of concern to women “in his gut,” not as “a kind of pandering.” The writer Alice Walker describes Mr. Obama as “someone who honors the feminine values of caring for all.”
Obama strategists also highlight his leadership style — his promise of consensus-building and moving beyond the politics of polarization and fear — as especially appealing to women.
“His message is about listening, bringing people together, the skills women appreciate,” said Betsy Myers, the campaign’s chief operating officer.
Kathleen Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and an expert on women in politics, said Mr. Obama’s “sensitive guy” persona allowed him “to show both a ‘strong’ and a ‘soft’ side, which is a dicier trick for Senator Clinton in the campaign.” Acutely aware of gender stereotypes, Mrs. Clinton has taken pains to highlight her strength and credibility as a potential commander in chief — and, some polls suggest, strikes some voters as excessively calculating.
Mrs. Clinton often alludes to what other women say about the meaning of her candidacy. While her campaign has denied playing the gender card, and she has said that she draws so much heat from her rivals because she is winning, not because she is a woman, she has referred to “the all-boys club of presidential politics” and at times employed language that evokes gender roles.
”I anticipate it’s going to get even hotter — and if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” she said after a particularly contentious debate with her Democratic rivals in late October. “And I’m very much at home in the kitchen.”
Bonnie Campbell, a former Iowa attorney general and Justice Department official, said she took Mrs. Clinton to her church last week and was struck by how many women came up to her saying: “I’m so proud of you. You couldn’t possibly know what it means to see someone like you running.”
For his part, Mr. Obama was careful to highlight his feminist sensitivities in the interview. He raised the recent episode in which a woman asked Senator John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, “How do we beat the bitch?” and said it was important for all the candidates to “police that kind of behavior and speak out against it.”
But he insisted that it was not really different to run against a woman than against a man.
“I don’t think she wants to be treated differently,” he said, “and I don’t think she has been treated differently than if she were a male candidate in this race.”