More Issues, Less Horse Race, Say Female Voters

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Shauna Ponton

Democrat Shauna Ponton, a child advocate at a nonprofit, wants to hear more about issues in this campaign. Katia Dunn/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Katia Dunn/NPR
Betsy Coleman

Voter Betsy Coleman watched the Democratic debate in Lawrenceville, Pa., with NPR and other female voters. Katia Dunn/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Katia Dunn/NPR

In a narrow brick rowhouse in the working-class community of Lawrenceville, Pa., a group of women watched the Democratic debate on Wednesday night, looking for clues as to which candidate they should support.

Female voters from all socioeconomic backgrounds are expected to play a big role in the Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday. While both blue-collar and professional women have supported New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in past contests, polls show that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is starting to make inroads with this voting group.

But many of these women expressed frustration with the tone of the debate and the way the moderators rehashed what they saw as minor points from the campaign trail. Instead, the women said, they would have preferred to hear more substance from the candidates.

"It just seemed like at the beginning, it was not a debate," said Shauna Ponton, who works as a child advocate at a nonprofit. "It was a 'bash Obama' campaign, and I think all of that was seriously unnecessary. I would have liked to have heard more about the key issues: gas, taxes, housing crisis — all of that."

Many of these women describe themselves as living paycheck to paycheck. Lawrenceville has a history as a blue-collar community, where generations of steelworkers lived. Now, many of the steelworkers' children remain in the community, along with Pittsburgh commuters lured by the lower rents.

Bonnie Bridge is a Lawrenceville native who handles the payroll for an education company.

"Once they started getting into actual issues, versus what I'm going to call 'gently mudslinging' at each other and things like that, I liked the end of it a lot better than the beginning," she said.

After the debate, Bridge said she was leaning toward Clinton because she liked Clinton's confidence and the way she marshaled facts.

Annie Burke, a public school teacher, had a different reaction to the candidates and thought Obama held up well when Clinton talked about his pastor or about his comment about "bitter" people in little towns.

"At first, I thought, 'Why are we rehashing these comments that have been made?' But it gives him the opportunity to show how he handles these situations," she said. "Often, he comes out stronger even than he was before. He really has been able to refine some of his answers to these controversies."

Once the candidates did begin addressing the issues, voter Betsy Coleman said she was glad to hear them outline their policies for bringing troops home from Iraq.

"I would wonder if you could make a blanket statement that you would definitely do it within 60 days, but I liked the idea that they were going to try to do it that way," she said about the candidates' troop-withdrawal plans.

All the Lawrenceville women were impressed with both candidates' command of the issues. Though few minds in this particular group of women were really changed by the debate, all seemed eager to see a Democrat win the general election.

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