Hello, Ladies: Obama, McCain Vie for Female Voters

It was supposed to be a thank you party for Hillary Clinton's most loyal Washington supporters, but the mood quickly turned grim. Last Wednesday night, the day after her big win in West Virginia, Clinton invited Charlie Rangel, John Dingell, Nita Lowey and other big-name congressional Democrats and campaign strategists to the Sewall-Belmont House, a women's-history museum on Capitol Hill. Amid the jokes and pledges to fight on to the end, news was passing through the crowd: NARAL, the pro-choice and women's-rights group, had unexpectedly endorsed Barack Obama. The celebratory spirit in the room evaporated. Until then, NARAL, which throws money behind pro-choice candidates, had stayed neutral in the Clinton-Obama matchup. The primaries would be over in just three more weeks. Why, the partygoers lamented, did a prominent women's group turn its back on Hillary so close to the end? "The women [at the party] were just outraged," says one member of Congress who was there, and who asked for anonymity talking about a private event. "It was very emotional … They felt betrayed."

Within hours, women flooded NARAL's Web site with angry messages. "What a grave grave GRAVE mistake on NARAL's behalf," wrote one, identifying herself as "Kayla." "I'm extremely upset and ashamed. You just lost all my support, membership, and donations."

Will Kayla and Hillary supporters like her vote for Obama in November? The question is very much on the minds of the candidate and his aides. As they narrow in on the nomination, Obama is working to bridge the divide between him and millions of mostly white, working-class women who backed Hillary—and who say they're still skeptical of Obama, or even angry at him, for spoiling her bid. Some have told pollsters they supported Clinton explicitly because they wanted a woman president; others, because she is tough and experienced.

Obama aides say the campaign will reach out to wary women by stressing how he owes much of his success to strong women: his grandmother; his single mom; his wife, Michelle. He'll reinforce that even though he may not be Hillary, he's voted like her. On key issues including abortion, birth control and equal pay, Obama and Clinton have near-identical records. Both have 100 percent ratings from NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Obama hopes he will also start to look better to Hillary voters once he's no longer being compared to her but to McCain—who opposes abortion and favors overturning Roe v. Wade.

McCain aides say his hard line on abortion isn't necessarily a disadvantage among many women. Though about 60 percent agree in general with Roe, that doesn't mean they vote based on a candidate's position on abortion. The McCain camp believes Hillary backers—working-class white women and independents, in particular—could migrate to McCain rather than to Obama. A Planned Parenthood poll of women voters in 16 battleground states earlier this year showed 49 percent of McCain's supporters called themselves pro-choice and said they support Roe.

NARAL says that is precisely why it endorsed Obama now. The group's leaders fear that many pro-choice women who support McCain don't know he is against abortion rights. (Indeed, the Planned Parenthood poll showed that half of women who supported McCain couldn't describe his position on the issue.) NARAL's board members, including Clinton supporters, voted unanimously to get behind the likely Democratic nominee so they could start going after McCain. "We don't look at this through a lens of gender … or who we like or who we don't like," Nancy Keenan, NARAL's president, tells NEWSWEEK. "We look through a lens of political relevance and how we can make a difference."

Clinton advisers concede that after the emotion of the primary season fades, even many Hillary supporters who told exit pollsters they'd never vote for Obama will get behind him. "Once the nomination is decided, the people who were supporting the losing candidate will go through a process of anger and grief and very quickly come back to the main focus, which is to put a Democrat in the White House," says Ellen Malcolm, a co-chair of the Clinton campaign. Malcolm, founder of EMILY's List, an advocacy group that raises millions of dollars for Democratic women candidates, is still in the anger and grief stage. Last week she rebuked NARAL, saying the Obama endorsement was "tremendously disrespectful" to Clinton. Yet already even she is coming around to the possibility of backing Obama: "If he's the nominee I will be more than proud to work hard for him."