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Candidates Vie For Female Voters' Attention

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Candidates Vie For Female Voters' Attention

Election 2008

Candidates Vie For Female Voters' Attention

Candidates Vie For Female Voters' Attention

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Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are fighting intensely for the female vote. McCain is trying to take advantage of the boost he received from naming Sarah Palin as his running mate. Obama is trying to counter it.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. You don't have to look very far to find evidence that the presidential candidates are interested in women voters. Just look at Oprah's TV show which now gets the most political ads after the news programs. John McCain is trying to maximize the bounce that he got from choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. Barack Obama is trying to minimize it. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: Alarmed at polls showing a shift of white women to McCain, Barack Obama is rolling out a series of events targeting female voters. This weekend, his campaign will hold rallies and go canvassing in beauty shops around the country. Meanwhile, John McCain appeared on "The View" and cooked ribs with Rachel Ray. The McCain campaign is also continuing to wield its most effective weapon in the battle for women voters, Sarah Palin. They're running this ad claiming she's been the victim of sexism by Obama.

(Soundbite of McCain campaign ad)

Unidentified Voiceover: He was the world's biggest celebrity, but his star is fading. So they lashed out at Sarah Palin, dismissed her as good looking. That backfired. So they said she was doing what she was told, then desperately called Sarah Palin a liar. How disrespectful...

LIASSON: The role reversals in this campaign are head-spinning, and so are the charges of hypocrisy. Just as conservative women reacted angrily to liberal feminists who question whether Palin could raise her children and run for vice president, liberals like the National Organization for Women's Kim Gandy are now tweaking Republicans for their newfound sensitivity. Gandy held a press conference yesterday.

Ms. KIM GANDY (President, National Organization for Women): I love it that the Republicans have discovered sexism in the media.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GANDY: Because they didn't see any of it when it was being directed at Hillary Clinton. But once Sarah Palin got a dose of it, they were all over it.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Nominee): Nobody actually believes that these folks are offended.

LIASSON: Obama himself, at an event last week in Virginia, described the Republican attacks as cynical.

Senator OBAMA: Everybody knows it's insincere. The media knows it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Senator OBAMA: I mean, this is a game that we play. It's a game. It's a sport.

LIASSON: But it's a game McCain's been playing with some effect, drawing attention away from Obama's message. This week the Obama campaign has settled on a new approach to Palin, focusing not on Palin herself, but on her positions. Here's Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, one of Obama's top surrogates, on ABC calling Palin a great role model for women.

Senator CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): I mean, I'm talking as a woman who took my breast pump to work for all three of my children. So it's terrific. But if women of America are going to kick the tires the next 55 days, and they're going to find out that this is a ticket that wants to put women in prison for having an abortion after they have been raped, this is a ticket that has...

LIASSON: But Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and one of McCain's top surrogates, appeared alongside McCaskill and insisted that sexism will drive women to McCain.

Ms. CARLY FIORINA (Former CEO, Hewlett-Packard): There are a whole host of women in the Democratic Party who believe the Democratic Party does not understand what sexism is, routinely underestimates the impact of women, and they are coming in droves to the Republican Party because they think the party and John McCain get it. That's a fact.

LIASSON: Not so fast, says Mark Blumenthal, the publisher of Pollster.com. There's no poll data showing large numbers of Democratic women moving to McCain, but there has been movement of white women to McCain. Right now, McCain has an average 13-point lead among white women. So he's back up to the same margin President Bush had when he beat John Kerry in 2004. Sarah Palin has certainly helped McCain there. But, Blumenthal says, there may be an even more important Palin effect.

Mr. MARK BLUMENTHAL (Publisher, Pollster.com): It's the change in the middle, the movement among independents, that's as much as responsible for this modest but critically important shift to McCain. Her selection along with John McCain's speech helped to convey to independents that McCain is really the maverick that they thought he was, reminded them of the things that they liked about McCain.

LIASSON: That's the good news for McCain. But the good news for Obama is that these independents are swing voters, and their preferences are not locked down yet, which makes the four upcoming debates critical for this narrow but decisive sliver of the electorate. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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