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Hillary Clinton plays ‘woman card,’ but political baggage overshadows historic campaign

Shadowed by scandal and hindered by her low-key campaign style, Hillary Clinton has made it easy at times to overlook the historic nature of her candidacy as the first female major-party nominee for president.

The email controversy that has dogged Mrs. Clinton for more than two years, combined with lingering criticism about her role in the Benghazi attack and the pay-for-access culture at the Clinton Foundation, have distracted from her campaign message and groundbreaking status. Her political baggage has highlighted divisions and underscored that women are not a monolithic voting bloc when it comes to the first potential female president.

“She doesn’t represent anything to me as a woman that’s good,” said Susan Smiley, a Republican state committeewoman in Massachusetts. “I really thought [the first female candidate] would be like rock-star status. There’s just no way I could even consider her.”

Other women say Mrs. Clinton has struck the right balance of promoting issues that women care about without making the campaign a litmus test on electing a female president.

“You have to run on your merits and let somebody else talk about the fact that you’re breaking new ground,” said Mandy Powers Norrell, a Democratic state representative from Lancaster, South Carolina. “When we hear her talk about health care or equal pay, I think she’s done a really good job of balancing the need to bring those forward but also not overplaying her hand.”

Polls in the final two weeks of the campaign show female voters favoring Mrs. Clinton anywhere from 10 to 17 percentage points over Republican nominee Donald Trump. The Republican has been leading among male voters by 2 to 5 points.

When Mrs. Clinton does call attention to her unique position as the first woman out of 116 top-tier presidential candidates dating back to 1789, she usually jokes about critics accusing her of playing “the woman card” on the campaign trail.

“If fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in,” she says.

Her campaign even began selling an official credit-card-sized “woman card” for $ 5 to raise money for her candidacy. Jane Wells Schooley of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, carries the card.

“The fact is, women are the determining factor in a presidential election. They just are,” said Ms. Wells Schooley, a Democrat who owns a business training corporate leaders. “This is a powerful constituency, but for the right woman candidate. You would absolutely not be seeing this [level of support] for an ultraconservative woman running for president. This isn’t about the woman card and women being attracted because Hillary’s a woman. They’re voting for the right woman.”

Like Barack Obama’s bid eight years ago to become the nation’s first black president, Mrs. Clinton generally has left it to surrogates to address the significance of breaking the ultimate gender barrier in U.S. politics. One of her primary backups has been Mr. Obama himself.

At a rally in North Carolina last week, the president implored young voters and blacks to make history again.

“You can elect a leader who has spent her entire life trying to move this country forward; our first female president who will be an example for our daughters and our sons that everybody has a chance to contribute and serve,” Mr. Obama said at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh. “You have a chance to shape history. It’s not often when you can move the arc of history. Don’t let that chance slip away.”

Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have been the most vocal of the candidate’s surrogates, with the president in particular saying Mrs. Clinton is held to double standards of sexism. Several times this year, including at the Democratic National Convention, the president showed a fondness for borrowing film legend Fred Astaire’s quip about his famous dancing partner to describe Mrs. Clinton’s work ethic.

“She was doing everything I was doing except, like Ginger Rogers, she was doing it backwards, in heels,” Mr. Obama said of his former secretary of state.

The president has not used that line since, which suggests someone close to the candidate didn’t like it as much as he did — or perhaps the reference to the dancing duo from the 1930s was lost on the millennial voters whom Mrs. Clinton needs badly.

In the campaign’s final two weeks, Mr. Obama has been more blunt, asserting at rallies that Mrs. Clinton had to overcome sexist attitudes in the race.

“Hillary Clinton is consistently treated differently than just about any other candidate I see out there,” Mr. Obama said in Columbus, Ohio. “I just want to say to the guys out there there’s a reason we haven’t had a woman president before.”

Trying to appeal to millennials, Mr. Obama also has confronted complaints that Mrs. Clinton is boring and has been in the spotlight for too long.

“She’s not flashy,” the president said. “She’s not going around spending all her time giving big stemwinders. And as a consequence, sometimes she’s under-appreciated here at home.”

Mrs. Powers Norrell, a veteran of three campaigns for the South Carolina legislature, agrees with Mr. Obama’s assertion that female candidates face additional tests.

“It is so much harder than running as a man,” she said. “Men are criticized by their opponents for their voting record, or their lack of knowledge, just as women are. But on top of those criticisms, women are criticized for their appearance, their wardrobe, their weight, their wrinkles, whether they smile a lot. There’s so many personal attacks.”

Of course, Mr. Trump also has been subjected to ridicule by the left about his appearance, especially his elaborate comb-over. But the Democrat’s supporters see an irony in Mrs. Clinton’s race against a male candidate accused of misogyny, unwanted advances and crude rhetoric about women.

“If you had to run as the first woman nominated to be president of the United States, I can honestly say I’d rather run against Donald Trump than a traditional candidate,” said Mrs. Wells Schooley, who has run for Congress. “The distinction is clear, and he makes it himself.”

Mrs. Clinton has put Mr. Trump on the defensive at times over his treatment of women, such as her deft strike in the first presidential debate against the Republican’s harsh words about Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe. That set off a week’s worth of annoyed tweets and explanations by the Republican candidate, demonstrating how easily he could be knocked off message.

Priorities USA, a super PAC created by Team Obama in 2011, began airing a campaign ad last week targeting Mr. Trump’s past comments about women. The commercial features the Carole King song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” over images of American women working, running marathons and boarding spacecraft — scenes that are blended with past remarks from Mr. Trump such as, “She ate like a pig.”

The Clinton campaign also launched a TV ad in late September titled “Mirror,” which intercuts Mr. Trump’s insults of women with shots of girls looking in the mirror.

“I’d look her right in that fat ugly face of hers,” Mr. Trump says in the ad, a comment he made about comedian Rosie O’Donnell a decade ago. “She is a slob.”

Such a level of negative campaigning tends to distract from both candidates’ qualifications, said Martin Kifer, director of the Survey Research Center at High Point University in North Carolina.

“I don’t see a tremendous amount of direct appeals [about Mrs. Clinton being the first female candidate],” Mr. Kifer said. “Part of it has to do with the relative negativity of the campaign. There are less positive assertions about the potentially historic nature of the candidacy and just a lot of negative campaigning.”

Ms. Smiley, the Republican committeewoman from Massachusetts, said Mr. Trump “hasn’t been any better” in his campaign rhetoric than Mrs. Clinton. But she views Mr. Trump as more authentic than his rival.

“Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he’s honest,” she said. “I don’t like that he says what he says, but I know that at the end of the day, it’s reality. With her, it’s like leaves blowing in the wind. She never holds still to any good moral compass. It concerns me that so many women would be focused on the fact that she’s a woman candidate and not looking at who she is as an individual.”

Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway pushed back hard last week on Mrs. Clinton’s pro-woman rhetoric, saying the Democratic nominee should own up to economic and health care setbacks for women under Mr. Obama.

“You can say that you have been fighting for women and children for 30 years. Where’s the product? Where is the deliverable?” Mrs. Conway said. “We have millions of women in poverty as I sit here. Fifteen percent of the population is in poverty, predominately female.”

Emails stolen from John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, also give glimpses into the internal debate over how much Mrs. Clinton should highlight issues especially important to women in her historic candidacy.

In March 2015, campaign pollster Joel Benenson wrote that he agreed with other campaign officials that Mrs. Clinton should back away from presenting “the full argument” on equal pay in a speech at a gala for the feminist Emily’s List advocacy group.

“We should hit it but dial it down,” he said.

As Mrs. Clinton struggled this year to defeat Sen. Bernard Sanders in the Democratic primary contest, campaign officials received some advice from Jon Favreau, formerly Mr. Obama’s head speechwriter. He warned them to “be careful that it doesn’t sound like she’s listing off interest groups — here’s my black speech, here’s my Latino policy, here’s my woman’s event, etc.”

Mr. Favreau said the Clinton campaign should follow a vision espoused by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo at the 1984 Democratic National Convention when he described the differences between Republicans and Democrats in the context of frontier wagon trains.

“The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail,” Mr. Cuomo said. “We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have more than once.”

Mr. Favreau concluded: “Who better to deliver that message than first lady turned secretary of state who could become America’s first female president?”

Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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