(WOMENSENEWS)–Hillary Clinton needs a win in today’s Pennsylvania primary to continue her campaign for the presidency and demonstrate her electoral strength–and Barack Obama’s perceived weakness–in large battleground states in the general election.

That’s the view of Jon Delano, a television commentator and political science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

And women, he says, hold the keys in an election that coincides with Equal Pay Day, an annual opportunity since 1996 to highlight the gender wage gap.

“While African Americans are expected to vote for Obama, will Pennsylvania women do the same for Clinton?” Delano asked in an e-mail circulated to reporters. “On the answer to that question rests this election.”

Clinton’s stalwart female supporters feel the same.

Patricia Dreisigmeyer, a 60-year-old retiree, staffs the phone lines at the Lehigh Valley for Hillary Clinton office in Allentown. “I’ve been hoping that she would run for the last five years,” she said in a telephone interview. “We are in a trench now. We have to get her the nomination.”

Delano says that polls have shown women steadily supported Clinton over the last five weeks, bolstering predictions that she will barrel out of today’s vote with enough fuel to last her through the remaining nine Democratic contests through June 3.

But he says women in suburban Philadelphia are unpredictable. If they back Obama–as young, well educated, anti-war and wealthy women have done in other states–the race will be close.

Questions Raised at Women’s eNews Forum

More than 100 women attended the Sunday Women’s eNews forum “Power of the Women’s Vote” at Bryn Mawr College, outside Philadelphia, and grilled representatives of the two campaigns for more than an hour on everything from global warming to bankruptcy law.

While both camps pledged party unity in the general election and agreed on many positions, national health care brought out contrasts.

Ann Lewis, senior advisor for Hillary Clinton for President, emphasized that her candidate is for universal health care, with a cap for an individual’s costs of 10 percent.

Ertharin Cousins, a top aide in the Obama campaign and a former Clinton White House staffer, said Obama’s plan to cover only children was more practical and more likely to become a reality. Cousins also noted that campaign staff would respond to the questions posed by Women’s eNews readers, with answers to be posted on the Women’s eNews Web site.

A Lifetime Networks poll released last week found that 1 in 5 of the women surveyed were still undecided. Of those who stated a preference, 34 percent went for Clinton, senator from New York; 29 percent for Obama, senator from Illinois; and 20 percent for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. The poll had an 8-percentage-point margin of error.

Other recent polls of men and women also gave Clinton a lead. In eight surveys taken between April 17 and April 20, Clinton held an average 5-percentage-point lead, according to RealClearPolitics, a Web site that tracks polling data.

Rich Delegate Bounty at Stake

The Keystone State hosts 158 delegates, the largest delegate prize left in this year’s Democratic primaries.

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat who opposes abortion rights, and Dan Rooney, the popular owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, have endorsed Obama.

And Pennsylvania women are organizing for him.

In Easton, a town north of Philadelphia, for instance, three stay-at-home mothers calling themselves “Mamas for Obama” have been making phone calls, knocking on doors, organizing rallies and hosting political forums for the Illinois senator.

“The reality is, people are working really hard and the system isn’t supporting them,” said Stephanie Monahon, one of the women.

But Clinton’s supporters and endorsements are piled high in this demographically disparate state, which Democratic strategist James Carville once described as two major cities “with Alabama in between.”

Gov. Ed Rendell; Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter; Rep. John Murtha, a leading critic of the Iraq war in Congress; and Rep. Allyson Schwartz, the only woman in Pennsylvania’s 21-member congressional delegation, have all endorsed Clinton.

EMILY’s List, the Washington-based political action committee that backs pro-choice Democratic women, has reached 150,000 voters in southeastern Pennsylvania with mailings and phone messages urging them to go to the polls and pull the lever for the former first lady.

“She has very solid support,” Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Va., said in a telephone interview after participating in a Clinton rally at City Hall in Philadelphia Friday featuring women’s rights leaders and activists including Kim Gandy, president of the Washington-based National Organization for Women; Cathy Scott, president of the Philadelphia Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and Arlene Kempin, general vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Appeal to Women in Base

Another enthusiastic backer is Denise Zuvic, a social worker who in her spare time directs Latinos for Clinton in northeastern Pennsylvania. “I’d love to see a woman in the White House,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Scranton, a coal mining town that was home to Clinton’s grandfather.

Clinton’s populist economic message–as well as her tales on the stump of pinochle games and trips to the family cabin in Lake Winola–is resonating with women, especially low-wage-earners and older women, said Nichola Gutgold, a professor of communication at Pennsylvania State University in central Lehigh Valley.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2006 U.S. women earned 76.9 cents for every dollar earned by men. The Senate is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a bill introduced in January to reverse a Supreme Court decision that made it harder for victims of wage bias to sue their employers.

If Clinton wins today’s primary, she still faces low odds of winning a majority of “pledged” delegates, those committed to backing a candidate based on the outcome of primaries and caucuses. Clinton currently trails Obama 1,250 to 1,418.

Consequently, her campaign is now widely assumed to be basing its long-shot hopes on securing a strong majority of superdelegates–those free to back the candidate of their choice regardless of the outcomes of state nominating contests–so she can reach the 2,024-delegate total needed to clinch her party’s nomination.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat who backs Clinton, dismissed calls for Clinton to drop out if she loses today. “The people who have said she should drop out are people who are for Obama,” she said. “I want to see a fighter and I want her to go all the way.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews. Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women’s eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2008 Presidential Election

A Women’s Questionnaire for Democratic Candidates

Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of site the link points to may change.