Barack Obama and top female supporters

(WOMENSENEWS)–Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign is wagering that last weekend’s stumping by the diversified-media celebrity Oprah Winfrey will spur its grassroots organizing initiative aimed at women.

“What ultimately will be the greatest benefit to the campaign is that the women attending these rallies will also be serving as precinct captains, canvassers and in other key positions to help get out the vote and caucus in their respective states,” said Becky Carroll, national director of the campaign’s Women for Obama initiative. “So, they’re not just attending a rally to show their support for Barack; but they’ll be playing a key role when it counts on Election Day.”

Winfrey, an old friend of Obama’s from Chicago, stirred mass-media buzz in May by breaking her nonpartisan stance to endorse him. Last weekend, she ignited the campaign trail in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, all early primary voting states. The duo drew over 29,000 to the Williams-Brice football stadium in Columbia, S.C., and around 6,000 people at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H.

Last month, the campaign announced the formation of state-specific Women for Obama leadership committees to organize in the nine states holding primaries on Feb. 5: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Minnesota and New Jersey. The committees are being asked to help expand the campaign’s base and increase the number of women fundraising, canvassing and holding house parties for the candidate. Michelle Obama, Barack’s wife, launched the committee with a conference call with over 700 female leaders across the country.

Even before Winfrey offered the candidate her mass appeal–her 22-year-old daytime TV show is watched by nearly 8 million U.S. viewers a day–Obama had been quick to declare the party coed and challenge New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s historic bid to put a woman in the White House by making his own historic bid for a person of African descent to be leader of the United States.

Endorsement Battle

Clinton has captured a host of endorsements from women’s advocacy groups, including EMILY’s List, the National Women’s Political Caucus, the National Organization for Women Political Action Committee, the Women’s Campaign Forum, the Women’s Political Committee and the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee.

For many months, Clinton enjoyed a strong gender gap but now some polls show Obama gaining on her among women and even surpassing in other groups.

While Obama may be making inroads with women, Clinton in turn is appealing to African Americans.

A CNN poll conducted and released in October indicated Clinton has a 26-point lead over Obama among African American registered Democrats. In that poll, 68 percent of black women said they preferred Clinton.

Clinton has also secured endorsements from the Alabama Black Caucus, civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and owner of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats.

Obama’s endorsements were slower to start but have been rolling in. In late November, Iowa State Rep. Deb Barry gave a nod to the senator, calling him the “best candidate to bring our country together.” In the same month, 46 other female elected officials in Iowa endorsed him.

Karen Bass Talks Up Obama

On the West Coast, California Assembly Leader Karen Bass, who is from a Los Angeles district and endorsed Obama in May, has been talking him up. “He is the candidate who will end the war as well as ensure that the country uses those wasted funds to address poverty issues throughout the nation,” she recently wrote on the Women for Obama blog. Bass is the vice chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, which endorsed Obama in September.

Alice Walker, the Berkeley, Calif., author of “The Color Purple”–the film version of which marked Winfrey’s film debut–and songstress Nancy Wilson began backing Obama this fall.

Another women’s group, Black Women for Obama, which is not affiliated with the Obama campaign, launched in September and now says on its Web site that it has 12 chapters across the country and uses a grassroots approach to mobilize voters.

In Obama’s home state of Illinois, Rep. Jan Schakowsky endorsed her colleague in the upper house in December.

The campaign’s attention to women seemed to become invigorated last March when Bonnie Grabenhofer, president of Illinois NOW, drew some public attention when she chastised the senator for only voting “present” on abortion bills. “When we needed someone to take a stand, Senator Obama took a pass,” Grabenhofer said in a press statement. “He wasn’t there for us then and we don’t expect him to be now.”

But Carroll defended Obama, pointing to his 100 percent pro-choice rating from both Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, and said the senator’s “present” votes were part of a strategy employed by the Illinois pro-choice community. “The only people complaining about these ‘present’ votes are groups who have endorsed Senator Clinton,” Carroll said.

A month later, in April, the Obama campaign launched its Women for Obama initiative, along with an ample Web site.

Network of 20,000

Like its wider grassroots mobilization effort the women’s initiative matches one donor to another and encourages donors to urge others to contribute. Carroll, the director of Women for Obama, says the initiative has a grassroots network of 20,000 women.

“Women who support Obama have really been the backbone of our operation,” she told Women’s eNews, adding that more women than men have donated to the campaign.

In the Illinois State Senate in 2003, Obama introduced a set of employment law protections for domestic and sexual violence victims. In April, Obama co-sponsored a bill that guarantees women receive equal pay comparable to men. Last January, he introduced a bill that would lower the child tax credit’s income limit so more working families could qualify and benefit.

As president, Obama says he would expand a program that provides home visits by trained nurses to low-income pregnant women and their families, raise the minimum wage and create a housing trust fund to develop affordable housing.

“He talks about fighting poverty, which is to my mind a woman’s issue,” says Lenore Patton, chair of the Rockingham County Democrats in New Hampshire and an Obama supporter. “Most people in poverty in this country are children. The second largest group is single mothers, who are raising those children.” Rockingham is one of the largest and most Democratic of the state’s counties.

“Although I am a woman and a feminist, and am very concerned about seeing women in all positions of influence in the country, I wouldn’t vote for a woman just because she’s a woman,” Patton told Women’s eNews. “When I’m making my choice, I have to pick the person who I think would be best for the country and the planet.”

Obama was raised by a single mother and likes to say that he has the right “biography” to fight for women.

A blogger who calls herself “Margaret from Viroqua, WI” agrees. “I am the product of a single mom,” she wrote on the Women for Obama blog last month, “went to an all women’s college, and am a stay-at-home, self-employed mom and I think that Barack Obama is the change we need on so many issues that women are concerned about–the war in Iraq, health care, education, etc.”

Megan Tady is a national political reporter for In These Times, and a freelance journalist.

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For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2008 Presidential Election:

“Iowa Women Jostle Obama Ahead of Clinton in Poll”:

Women for Obama homepage:

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