(WOMENSENEWS)--Irene Iben is undecided.
Iben is a plum prospect for presidential candidates: a registered voter in Oelwein, Iowa, who is also chair of the Fayette County Central Committee, which puts her in place to influence other Republican voters.
She will be among the earliest Americans to cast a ballot in the rigorous 2008 presidential campaign when Iowa holds its Republican caucus on Jan. 3.
"I'm just kind of putting this all into my memory bank," says Iben of the stump speeches she's heard from candidates visiting nearby Dubuque and Waterloo.
Beyond her party position in Fayette County, Iben is part of a larger majority candidates are working to secure: women, who represent 54 percent of all voters.
In the 2004 election, 60 percent of voter turnout was female, and women have voted at higher rates than men since 1980, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
At the forefront of the effort to reel in women is Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first viable female presidential candidate, who devoted the week of Oct. 15 to the theme "Women Changing America." Events included an Oct. 17 finance summit raising $1 million from female donors.
"We began this campaign very focused on women," said Clinton senior adviser Ann Lewis.
Courting the Women's Vote
Unwilling to concede the women's vote, Clinton's Democratic rivals are making their own appeals, reserving Web site sections for women's issues and hosting events for female voters. Republican candidates boast of female coalitions that act as recruiters and activists.
Women--especially unmarried women--traditionally vote for a Democrat. In the 2004 election, nearly 9 million more women than men voted, outpacing men in every racial and ethnic group. The gender gap emerged in the 1980 election and has ranged between 7 and 12 percent since, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
Predicting the size of the gender gap in the 2008 election is difficult, said Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the center. The vote will likely reflect the established trend but with Clinton in the race, "there is a potential for that to be even larger."
Pointed efforts to reach women are a fresh addition to the 2008 campaign, Carroll noted, and candidates have previously not tapped the women's vote so directly or so early in the primary season.
According to an Oct. 16 USA Today/Gallup Poll, Clinton currently leads voters in the Democratic field with 50 percent, followed by Barack Obama with 21 percent and John Edwards with 13 percent. Rudy Giuliani leads the Republican vote with 32 percent, followed by Fred Thompson with 18 percent, John McCain with 14 percent and Mitt Romney with 10 percent.
Second-tier Democratic candidates such as Christopher Dodd, who authored the Family and Medical Leave Act, and Joseph Biden, who spearheaded the Violence Against Women Act, have been in the forefront in Congress on women's policy issues.
Opportunity to Make History
Clinton appears determined to hang on to her front-runner's advantage. Her campaign staff has largely framed their candidate as an opportunity for women to make voting history. They say women, who make up a higher concentration of primary voters, are 65 percent of people attending her rallies.
Since receiving the vote in 1920, women have been a player in the political process that has gained strength over the years. Traditionally they are a larger portion of undecided and swing voters, and candidates are courting them now with such topical issues as the war in Iraq alongside specialized messages about pay discrimination and domestic violence.
Democratic candidates have sections on their Web sites devoted to women: Clinton is billed as a "A Champion for Women" and emphasizes issues such as equal pay and abortion rights; Obama's site directs visitors to the dozens of "Women for Obama" groups scattered around the nation; and Edwards makes discussion of women's issues an "in-depth" topic emphasizing the balance between working life and family concerns.
Giuliani's Web site also includes "Women for Rudy" in a list of four coalitions, and while neither McCain nor Thompson specify stances for women on their Web sites, the Republicans woo female voters by focusing on morality and social issues.
Romney's campaign has launched Women for Mitt coalitions in Florida, South Carolina and New Hampshire. Alex Burgos, director of specialty media for the Romney campaign, said national co-chairs of the groups include Texas Congresswoman Kay Granger and eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Ann Romney launched her own Web site Oct. 1 which highlights personal causes and recipes.
Obama's Web site for women outlines his plan for health care, with six subsections dotted with statistics on how AIDS, heart disease and cancer affect women. His abortion position warrants two subsections underscoring his support of the right to choose and legislation to expand access to contraception. The Web site also highlights domestic violence, poverty, pay equity and education alongside a call to end the war in Iraq.
Laced With Focus on Women's Lives
Candice Tolliver, Obama's senior communication strategist, says the candidate has been strongly affected by being raised by a single mother. His resulting policies have been laced with a focus on improving women's lives and appeal to a spectrum of female voters.
"There's not just one woman for Obama," Tolliver says. "It's his mandate that we really have a strong women's component, that these policies really help women in their daily lives."
Similar to Romney, a photo of Elizabeth Edwards leads the women's section of John Edwards' Web site. Edwards touches on the right to choose, but focuses heavily on his campaign anchor: poverty. At the center of his campaign is the idea that strengthening families will strengthen the nation. Poverty is the first target on this assault on inequality, and Edwards promises women that each will have health care and a higher minimum wage. Other pledges to women include brokering a balance between work and family, and countering discrimination.
The focus on poverty appeals to women like Kate Michelman, a senior adviser to Edwards who is the former president of leading abortion lobby, NARAL Pro-Choice America, based in Washington, D.C.
"He recognizes that women suffer the brunt of these injustices in our society," she says. "A society like ours, women shouldn't have to be struggling like this."
Women and men care about many of the same issues but prioritize them differently, said Carroll of the Center for American Women and Politics. Domestic issues such as health care and education resonate with women, alongside policy matters that impact them.
"Some are concerned also about the pay equity for themselves, not so much because they're wearing a feminist issue on their sleeve, but because they are frequently heads of households," Carroll said. "Even if they're not, they're certainly sharing the responsibility for supporting the household."
Alison Bowen is covering the 2008 campaign for Women's eNews.
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