Are women voters quitting the Clinton camp?

They've been a key part of her base, but Obama may have closed the gender gap.

Democratic women, especially older women, have been running strong for Hillary Rodham Clinton. But it's starting to look as if their desire for a Democratic nominee who they think can win in November is eclipsing their wish to see a woman behind the desk in the Oval Office.

Exit polls from the latest primaries, held Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, show that the so-called gender gap Senator Clinton has enjoyed until now is disappearing.

It's not clear why, but Linda Sherbinow, a retired teacher who lives outside Marquette, Mich., offers a plausible explanation.

"I don't think Hillary stands as much of a chance of winning [in the general election] as Obama does," she said in a phone interview. "I just have this gut feeling."

That gut feeling is prompting her to switch her allegiance from Clinton to Barack Obama, she says, despite her continuing respect and admiration for Clinton.

In a primary season that's had more twists and turns than a switchback trail, the conventional wisdom about the women's vote during this historic Democratic nominating race is no exception.

First, Clinton was thought to have the nomination almost sewn up in large part because a majority of Democratic women, and especially black women, seemed to be going for her in a big way. Then Senator Obama won in Iowa, and black women shifted to him in droves.

Next, the conventional wisdom held that a majority of women were still going for Clinton, especially older women who had fought the feminist battles and wanted to see the glass ceiling shattered at no less an office than at the White House. While their daughters may have jumped onto the Obama bandwagon, this thinking went, older voters are known to turn out more reliably than young voters, so Clinton was in good shape.

Obama turned that thesis on its head Tuesday. In the three "Potomac primaries," he edged out Clinton among women, winning 59 percent of the women's vote in Maryland and Virginia, including a majority of the women who earn less than $50,000 a year. Just a few days ago, that group was believed to be a key component of Clinton's base.

"I'm not sure what Hillary can do now. The fact is that she's [already] a known quantity," says David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "A lot of people made of their minds about her a long time ago, whereas Obama still has room to grow."

If Democratic women are quitting the Clinton camp, it may be because they are imagining a Clinton-McCain matchup in November – and are not liking what they see, suggest some political analysts. The Republican Party is not yet fully united behind the candidacy of front-runner John McCain, and if it remains divided, Republican turnout in November could be weak.

"The one thing that will galvanize turnout for Republicans, even though they don't love John McCain, is Hillary Clinton, and Democrats know that," says Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

If Clinton cannot overcome such voter concerns in her fire-wall states of Ohio and Texas, it could spell the end of her candidacy, say political analysts.

A diminishing gender gap may not be good for Clinton, but it may ultimately be a very good thing for women, say experts on the gender gap and women's role in politics.

"If there's no gender gap, or if it's smaller than expected, it means that both candidates really are focusing on women voters and the issues that have historically mattered to them," says Professor Lawless. "So it might not be to the advantage of a female candidate, but from a public-policy perspective, there's some kind of normative good associated with it."

That said, Lawless and other analysts aren't ready to declare that the gender gap is no longer significant. It still can be a factor. For instance, Clinton may yet eat into Obama's lead among male voters.

Gary Sherbinow, Linda's husband, is supporting Clinton.

"She's got Bill behind her," he says. "He's got some experience he can contribute to her."

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