BETHESDA, Md. (WOMENSENEWS)–A flotilla of female names is bobbing to the surface for the Democrats’ No. 2 spot.

But Marj Signer, a strong supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, isn’t impressed.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, whoop-de-do, we’ll get somebody else with a vagina,'” said Signer, president of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women. “We were not doing this because she was a woman. We were doing this because she was fantastic on our issues.”

As a prime example, Signer pointed to the way Clinton joined Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in leading a congressional outcry against President Bush’s move last week to expand the definition of abortion to include birth control.

“There’s just a feeling of, ‘We really put a lot of energy into this and we got a bad deal,'” Signer said, citing what she characterized as unfavorable treatment of Clinton in the media in the Democratic Party establishment. “People are just saying, ‘Maybe we just shouldn’t vote this time.'”

Clinton’s loss has deflated activist zeal for making history with another woman, Signer added.

That’s an attitude that the country’s top-ranking woman–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California–is trying to change, especially when it comes to sour grapes over the possibility that Clinton may not be chosen as Obama’s running mate.

“I don’t think we should be making an issue after the primary is over about who should be vice president,” Pelosi said, according to a July 21 report on the Huffington Post. “That would have been up to Hillary Clinton and would have been up to Barack. And it is up to Barack. The only one thing important right now is party unity.”

McCaskill, Napolitano, Sebelius

Apart from Clinton, who narrowly lost the nomination last month, three other women are also considered top picks for the Democratic ticket: Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Each would be “outstanding” as vice president because each supports abortion rights as well as a range of other issues of particular concern to women, such as pay parity, universal quality day care and economic support for mothers, said Kate Michelman, who served as an adviser to John Edwards before he bowed out of the primary race. Michelman is also former president of Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country’s leading abortion rights lobby.

These women are also politically attractive because they are Democrats who have won statewide races in Republican-tilting states in the Midwest and South. As governors, Sebelius and Napolitano have also managed state budgets, giving them economic experience at a time when most voters rate the faltering economy the country’s top concern.

Women are also surfacing on the Republican side. Top names there include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Carly Fiorina, former chief executive officer of technology company Hewlett-Packard; Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; and Meg Whitman, who formerly served as chief executive officer of eBay, the online auction site.

These women, however, aren’t getting the same kind of push given to Geraldine Ferraro, the former New York lawmaker who became the first woman to run as vice president in 1984.

A former president of the National Organization for Women, Eleanor Smeal played a key role in getting Ferraro on the vice presidential ballot.

Smeal Hangs Back

But today, as head of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a women’s rights research and advocacy group in Arlington, Va., Smeal is not actively working to put another woman into Ferraro’s shoes.

While attending the annual National Organization for Women conference in Bethesda, Md., July 18-20, Smeal called Clinton the obvious choice for vice president but said Clinton isn’t interested, complicating any effort to organize on her behalf.

“It’s dicey,” said Smeal, who in 1984 joined other activists in pressuring Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale to name Ferraro as his running mate. As part of that push, Smeal authored a resolution that threatened to fight Mondale’s nomination on the floor of the National Democratic Convention in San Francisco if he didn’t pick a woman to run alongside him.

Smeal based much of her argument on the need for a female in the executive branch in her 1984 book “How and Why Women Will Elect the Next President,” which defined the “gender gap” in voting for the first time, showing that women and men have different political preferences.

The Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan and no woman has been put on the vice presidential ballot since.

In recent election years, a few women–such as Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina or Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California–have appeared and reappeared on lists of vice presidential possibilities. But none was taken seriously, said Ann Stone, chair of Republicans for Choice, an advocacy group in Alexandria, Va.

Discounting GOP Names

Stone dismissed most of the female vice-presidential names being circulated for the GOP race. Rice, she said, has repeatedly said she has no interest in the position; Fiorina recently landed in hot water when she expressed support for contraceptive equity, which McCain has opposed in the Senate; and as governor of sparsely populated Alaska, Palin brings few supporters to GOP nominee John McCain of Arizona.

As a California resident with a background in economics and technology, Whitman, who now serves as one of McCain’s national co-chairs, is one to watch, Stone said.

Still, Stone doubted that McCain will pick a woman this year. “We used to have a lot of possibilities. I just don’t think they’re there now.”

Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a New York group that encourages women to run for all levels of political office, says Clinton’s candidacy has spurred a geyser of female vice presidential prospects this year. She said Clinton’s race normalized the notion of women at the top levels of government, prompting commentators and observers to throw out women’s names more frequently this year. “There’s a certain level of comfort because she was in this race,” Wilson said.

Obama and McCain may be giving a female running mate more consideration because of Clinton’s close loss to Obama, added Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Research on Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames. A woman on either ticket could generate enthusiasm among the female half of the electorate, Bystrom said.

“Republicans don’t need to win the women’s vote, they just need to narrow it,” Bystrom said. Obama, meanwhile, “really needs women’s votes. The campaign is much closer than it should be at this point.”

Daily national tracking polls conducted by Gallup through the month of July indicate Obama leading McCain among registered voters of all parties between 1 and 6 percentage points.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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