Clinton or Obama? Gender less important to young voters.

As Obama gains, he whittles Clinton's lead among baby-boomer women.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Three cheers: At a Clinton rally Feb. 12 in El Paso, Texas, women showed their colors.
Allen Fredrickson/Reuters
Which way? Women in North Lake, Wis., checked a map to determine their ward before voting on Tuesday.

Cory Atkins isn't swayed by Obama-mania.

The Massachusetts state lawmaker is a loyal supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton because "she's been through all of the fights I've been through as a woman."

Casey Atkins, the state rep's daughter, is in Barack Obama's camp because of his "more inclusive view of things, his message of uniting people."

As for what that difference says about women: "That's the paradox of our success," quips Representative Atkins.

How the women's vote is breaking this Democratic primary season is proving to be pivotal, as Mr. Obama racks up wins in part on the basis of white female voters jumping into his camp. In Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, he won almost as many women's votes as Mrs. Clinton did – it was a statistical tie, exit polls show. In earlier primaries, by contrast, Clinton held a 20 percentage-point edge with female voters – and older women, such as Representative Atkins, were pillars of that support.

But in a trend apparent since the 2006 midterm elections, when female candidates didn't fare as well with younger women voters as they did with their mothers, gender is losing its importance to many women in the "Gen X" and "Gen Y" sets.

"For baby-boomer women and older women, [Clinton's candidacy] is very historic," says pollster Celinda Lake. "Younger women tend to be more impressed with someone of their generation and someone who's African-American. Gender is just not as salient to them. They want candidates to prove to them that they are good."

As a result, women voters have gained clout in the volatile Democratic nominating race, as each campaign fights for their allegiance, experts say. Many expect that to hold true in the general election, too.

"Women will determine the president this year. They're the battleground right now in the primaries, and they're going to be the battleground in the general election," says Ms. Lake. "For Democrats, the lesson [for November] is that you have to have women more enthusiastic about you than men are [excited] about the Republican, or you're going to lose."

Settling on a candidate can be an arduous mental process for any voter, but many women are finding that the historic nature of the 2008 presidential campaign is making the choice particularly difficult.

Linda Purdy of Moretown, Vt. describes it as both "exhilarating and agonizing." For the first time in her life, she says, the Democratic Party's two remaining contenders for the nomination are not white men.

Ms. Purdy, who was born at the end of the baby boom, finds the idea of the first female president very appealing, and she admires Clinton. But so is the idea of electing the first African-American president, and she finds Obama inspiring. She likes Clinton's healthcare plan and Obama's stance against the war.

"I finally realized that I didn't want to look at gender or race. I wanted to vote for the person who was the most capable of running the country," she says. But Purdy admits to looking at national polls – and in that analysis, gender did end up playing a role in her decision.

"I've come to the conclusion that this country isn't ready for a female president," she says. "I think Barack Obama has a much better chance of winning in the general election, and so I've decided to vote for him."

Baby boomer Davia Temin, a management expert in New York, is just as adamant that Clinton has the best chance of defeating the Republican nominee and is better prepared to lead the country.

"I run a company, and before that I was a very senior executive in corporate America, and I respect what it takes to run large and small institutions – not just to inspire them but to lead them and manage them in the right way," she says. "From all of Hillary's accomplishments and intelligence and track record, she's the only one out there capable of doing this."

But for Chela Sullivan, a social worker in her late 20s who lives in Phoenix, the Iraq war was a deciding factor, not experience. She says she didn't like Clinton's vote on the war or the way she's handled her explanation for it.

"I would absolutely want a woman president if I felt like they were the best choice," she says. "But I just don't think Hillary is the best choice. For me it's just not about gender."

Such diverse and strong opinions among women show, according to political analysts, that the choice of a candidate remains a personal and complex matter.

"It's more complicated than early projections indicated, because there's more to people's political world view and how they view others than race and gender," says Margie Omero, founder of Momentum Analysis, a Democratic polling firm. "Those are big, obviously, but there are other things."

It's those other things, as well as race and gender, that are making this political race a win-win proposition for Clinton supporter Cory Atkins.

"As a Democrat, I am just so proud of our field this political season," she says. "It's always better to have too many choices of wonderful people than not a good candidate at all. As a party, I think we can't lose."

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