WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Some groups working to send New York Sen. Hillary Clinton to the White House are preparing to sit out the rest of the presidential election if she drops out of the race; others are giving only grudging support to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as he comes closer to clinching the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
If Obama is the nominee, there won't be the "same level of enthusiasm since we endorsed Hillary Clinton," said Mai Shiozaki, spokesperson for the National Organization for Women in Washington, D.C.
Other ardent Clinton supporters in the women's rights movement may hesitate before jumping on Obama's bandwagon, predicted Vicki Lovell, director of employment and work-life programs at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington think tank. "That level of passion may not transfer wholesale," she said.
Obama was headed to victory in Oregon's primary Tuesday by midnight after news outlets projected him the winner with 59 percent of the vote. Clinton easily carried Kentucky with 65 percent of the vote, according to CNN projections. Still, it is nearly impossible for Clinton to surpass Obama in the delegate count before June 3, when the Democratic race ends, but she vowed to press on to the end in her victory speech in Kentucky.
If Clinton bows out after June 3, groups dedicated to increasing women's political representation will refocus their efforts on races featuring women further down the ballot. These groups include Washington-based EMILY's List, one of the country's largest and most influential political action committees, which aims to increase the number of pro-choice women in office, but not men, no matter their record on abortion rights.
Smaller political action committees that work to increase the number of pro-choice women in office, such as the Washington-based National Women's Political Caucus and the Women's Campaign Forum, will also bring their unprecedented activity in the presidential election to a halt and return to business as usual: working on behalf of female candidates running in races further down the ballot.
"We focus on promoting the leadership of pro-choice women in political life," explained Ilana Goldman, president of the Women's Campaign Forum. As a man, Obama does not qualify for their help.
Shift Toward Obama
Most women's rights groups have already endorsed Clinton and will stick with her as long as she is in the race; if Obama becomes the nominee, most will back him, Lovell predicted.
One prominent supporter, former campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, is reportedly weighing whether to join the Obama camp, which could increase his appeal to Latinas, a Clinton stronghold. Doyle was the first Hispanic woman to run a presidential campaign but resigned after Clinton's mixed returns in the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests.
The pending shift was also clear last week when Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country's leading abortion rights lobby, endorsed Obama.
The endorsement angered many in the mainstream women's rights movement, who feel Clinton would be a stronger advocate for women because they say she has been a stronger champion for them. EMILY's List President Ellen Malcolm called it "tremendously disrespectful" toward Clinton.
But NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan said both candidates are fully committed to women, at least when it comes to reproductive rights. "Politics is about choices," she said in a telephone interview. "At the end of the day you take a look at delegates, superdelegates, the popular look, cash on hand, and you make a political decision."
Even though they may not endorse Obama, EMILY's List and other groups will provide indirect help if he is the Democratic nominee, spokesperson Ramona Oliver said.
EMILY's List gave Clinton $323,000 in direct contributions this cycle, ranking as the fifth highest contributor to her campaign, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. The group plans to spend vast sums to mobilize female voters on behalf of women running state and congressional elections in battleground states such as New Hampshire, Florida and Ohio.
'Pumping Up' Female Voters
Those efforts, Oliver said, will benefit the Democratic presidential candidate because female voters are more likely to back Democrats. "Pumping up that gender gap is going to help whoever is the eventual nominee," she said.
If it's Obama, he will also benefit from efforts made by Women's Voices, Women Vote, a Washington-based group that works to involve unmarried women in elections. The group, which stirred controversy earlier this month after allegations that it attempted to suppress the black vote in a deliberate attempt to confuse voters, plans to register at least 5 million unmarried women in time for the November election.
The group, which has close ties to the Clinton campaign, denies wrongdoing but is under investigation for possible voter suppression tactics in North Carolina after the state's NAACP chapter filed complaints with the state attorney general and the state board of elections.
Meanwhile, NARAL Pro-Choice America and New York-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America are also running voter education programs, which could help the Democratic nominee in his or her race against anti-choice Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee.
But disappointment surrounding Clinton's anticipated withdrawal from the race may dampen enthusiasm--and turnout--among Clinton's female backers.
"Barack Obama is going to have a lot of reaching out to do," said Gloria Feldt, the former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York. "It's going to be incumbent on his campaign to make sure that all of those groups that have pinned their hopes on women that he reaches out immediately and genuinely and not with bridge building but with concrete ideas with how he's going to cure sexism as well as racism."
Ardent Support in Some Corners
Some fear Clinton voters will be so upset by a loss they will vote for McCain. A March Gallup poll showed that at least 28 percent of Clinton supporters would vote for McCain if he is the nominee. Geraldine Ferraro, a vocal Clinton supporter who made a historic bid for vice president in 1984, told the New York Times she may not vote for Obama.
Lovell brushed aside those fears. "There may be some slight falling off from Hillary's campaign, and the level of personal passion may be less," she said. But she added: "Voters who are concerned about women's issues will support Obama because, if the race is between Obama and McCain, he's by far the best candidate."
Obama commands a majority of pledged delegates and superdelegates, who are free to back the candidate of their choice regardless of primary results. He has won the popular vote so far and has won more states during this election cycle.
Consequently, Clinton's campaign is now relying on a strategy of persuading the Democratic National Committee to count delegates from Michigan and Florida, which were disqualified because state parties violated national party rules by scheduling primaries in January.
Clinton won the Michigan and Florida contests; neither candidate campaigned in either state, and Obama's name did not appear on the Michigan ballot. The Democratic National Committee will consider whether to seat delegates from those two states at the national convention during a May 31 meeting in Washington.
If the committee decides against her, Clinton will come under heavy pressure to bow out and allow Democrats to unite around Obama as he enters the general election campaign against McCain.
On June 1, Puerto Rico holds its Democratic primary. Two days later come the final South Dakota and Montana primaries.
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.
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