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Clinton A Vexing Foe For Opponents

Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., responds to a question during the first Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2008 election hosted by South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., Thursday, April 26, 2007.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
This column was written by Michelle Cottle.

Kate Michelman is struggling to carry on a phone conversation without crashing her car as she barrels east across New Hampshire on her way to yet another campaign appearance with Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards. This morning, Michelman, who for almost 20 years served as president of NARAL, was in Manchester with Edwards for the official opening of the campaign's state headquarters. Next, the two women popped over to Southern New Hampshire University for what the campaign was billing as a "Community Conversation," then to Concord for a "Conversation on Women's Rights," and now they're off to Portsmouth for "Coffee & Conversation." Late this afternoon, they are expected at a "House Party" in Durham, after which Michelman will catch a plane home, while Edwards goes on to a "Save Darfur" rally at the University of New Hampshire.

That's a lot of partying, rallying, and conversing for anyone, admits Michelman, much less for the candidate's wife, who learned in mid-March that her breast cancer has returned. No matter: Michelman repeatedly assures me that she and Edwards have no intention of scaling back their push to educate voters about why, "if they care about the experiences of women and the conditions of their lives — if they care about women — they'll vote for John Edwards." The mission is "too important to be put aside," says Michelman. And, thanks to a certain New York senator's presence in the race, the battle for the hearts, minds, and votes of America's women has never been trickier.

In a typical cycle, John Edwards might expect to enjoy an edge with the ladies: He has the boyish good looks, the easy charm, the popular and outspoken wife (rendered simultaneously more sympathetic and more impressive by her battle with cancer) and the focus on gal-friendly issues like health care and the environment. It's little wonder that, when he was John Kerry's 2004 running mate, the campaign liked to send him out to appear on the daytime talk shows that target women. But 2008 is no ordinary race, and Hillary Clinton's team has not been shy about hawking its "Let's Make History!" story line, firing up the fairer sex with visions of shattered glass ceilings and the long-deferred dreams of little girls.

Edwards is hardly the only man figuring out how to cope with America's first female presidential front-runner ever. For as long as there have been women candidates, there have been rules about how to run against them — what to say, what to avoid saying, which stereotypes to use to undermine their credibility. The strategies themselves are banal: Don't be a bully. Do raise doubts about a lady's leadership ability. Don't come across as patronizing. Do paint her as soft on issues like crime or national security. To be sure, such stereotyping requires an increasingly light touch. (It was just 23 years ago that the host of "Meet the Press" had the cojones to ask Geraldine Ferraro — a former New York prosecutor, mind you — "Are you strong enough to push the button?") But even the stalest clichés (tough men are leaders; tough women are bitches) and prejudices (pretty women aren't smart) can still resonate on a gut level.

Kenneth Baer, a former campaign adviser to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, recalls how the Democrat's blonde beauty was an implicit negative in her 2002 race. Meanwhile, in his 2002 gubernatorial bid against Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Republican Bob Ehrlich once serenaded a crowd with the pop hit "Livin' La Vida Loca"; when he got to the line, "She'll make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain," he paused dramatically to ask: "We're not talking about Townsend, are we?" (Stay classy, Bob.) Even against an opponent as famously tough as Hillary Clinton, certain rules still apply. In his 2000 Senate run against the former first lady, Republican Rick Lazio invaded her personal space during a televised debate, brandishing a pledge to renounce soft money. Viewers found the gesture menacing, and — wham! — just like that, Lazio proved himself a bully.

That said, everyone agrees that the junior senator from New York is not your "typical" female candidate, and a strong strain of Hillary Exceptionalism exists among operatives in both parties. Some classify Clinton sui generis simply by dint of her fame, history, and polarizing persona. "In a way, Hillary Clinton almost transcends gender," says Democratic media guru Anita Dunn. GOP pollster Frank Luntz notes that Clinton lacks many of the usual pros and cons of female candidates. "She doesn't have to prove she's tough enough or smart enough," he contends. On the flip side, "She does not have a sense of warmth," and she lacks "the family advantage" — i.e., charming tales about soccer carpools and PTA potlucks. Bottom line, says Luntz: "Put gender aside. Just treat her like you would any other candidate."

Certainly, Clinton is no Ségolène Royal, the socialist defeated in this month's French presidential election, who spent much of the race emphasizing her femininity and pleading with women to back her as a way to "put an end to centuries of injustice." But, even as Team Clinton stresses its candidate's experience, political chops, and toughness (not traditionally "feminine" selling points), it also can't resist running that make history! banner across the top of the campaign's website.