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The XX Factor

KATE MICHELMAN is struggling to carry on a phone conversation without crashing her car as she barrels east across New Hampshire on her way to yet another campaign appearance with Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards.

This morning, Michelman, who for almost 20 years served as president of NARAL, was in Manchester with Edwards for the official opening of the campaign’s state headquarters. Next, the two women popped over to Southern New Hampshire University for what the campaign was billing as a “Community Conversation,” then to Concord for a “Conversation on Women’s Rights,” and now they’re off to Portsmouth for “Coffee & Conversation.” Late this afternoon, they are expected at a “House Party” in Durham, after which Michelman will catch a plane home, while Edwards goes on to a “Save Darfur” rally at the University of New Hampshire. That’s a lot of partying, rallying, and conversing for anyone, admits Michelman, much less for the candidate’s wife, who learned in mid-March that her breast cancer has returned.

No matter: Michelman repeatedly assures me that she and Edwards have no intention of scaling back their push to educate voters about why, “if they care about the experiences of women and the conditions of their lives—if they care about women—they'll vote for John Edwards.” The mission is “too important to be put aside,” says Michelman. And, thanks to a certain New York senator’s presence in the race, the battle for the hearts, minds, and votes of America’s women has never been trickier.

In a typical cycle, John Edwards might expect to enjoy an edge with the ladies: He has the boyish good looks, the easy charm, the popular and outspoken wife (rendered simultaneously more sympathetic and more impressive by her battle with cancer), and the focus on gal-friendly issues like health care and the environment. It’s little wonder that, when he was John Kerry’s 2004 running mate, the campaign liked to send him out to appear on the daytime talk shows that target women. But 2008 is no ordinary race, and Hillary Clinton’s team has not been shy about hawking its “Let's Make History!” story line, firing up the fairer sex with visions of shattered glass ceilings and the long-deferred dreams of little girls.

EDWARDS IS hardly the only man figuring out how to cope with America’s first female presidential front-runner ever. For as long as there have been women candidates, there have been rules about how to run against them—what to say, what to avoid saying, which stereotypes to use to undermine their credibility. The strategies themselves are banal: Don’t be a bully. Do raise doubts about a lady’s leadership ability. Don’t come across as patronizing. Do paint her as soft on issues like crime or national security. To be sure, such stereotyping requires an increasingly light touch. (It was just 23 years ago that the host of “Meet the Press” had the cojones to ask Geraldine Ferraro—a former New York prosecutor, mind you—“Are you strong enough to push the button?”) But even the stalest cliches (tough men are leaders; tough women are bitches) and prejudices (pretty women aren’t smart) can still resonate on a gut level. Kenneth Baer, a former campaign adviser to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, recalls how the Democrat’s blonde beauty was an implicit negative in her 2002 race. Meanwhile, in his 2002 gubernatorial bid against Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Republican Bob Ehrlich once serenaded a crowd with the pop hit “Livin' La Vida Loca”; when he got to the line, “She’ll make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain,” he paused dramatically to ask: “We’re not talking about Townsend, are we?” (Stay classy, Bob.) Even against an opponent as famously tough as Hillary Clinton, certain rules still apply. In his 2000 Senate run against the former first lady, Republican Rick Lazio invaded her personal space during a televised debate, brandishing a pledge to renounce soft money. Viewers found the gesture menacing, and—wham!—just like that, Lazio proved himself a bully.

That said, everyone agrees that the junior senator from New York is not your “typical” female candidate, and a strong strain of Hillary Exceptionalism exists among operatives in both parties. Some classify Clinton sui generis simply by dint of her fame, history, and polarizing persona. “In a way, Hillary Clinton almost transcends gender,” says Democratic media guru Anita Dunn. GOP pollster Frank Luntz notes that Clinton lacks many of the usual pros and cons of female candidates. “She doesn’t have to prove she’s tough enough or smart enough,” he contends. On the flip side, “She does not have a sense of warmth,” and she lacks “the family advantage”—i.e., charming tales about soccer carpools and PTA potlucks. Bottom line, says Luntz: “Put gender aside. Just treat her like you would any other candidate.”

Certainly, Clinton is no Segolene Royal, the socialist defeated in this month’s French presidential election, who spent much of the race emphasizing her femininity and pleading with women to back her as a way to “put an end to centuries of injustice.” But, even as Team Clinton stresses its candidate’s experience, political chops, and toughness (not traditionally “feminine” selling points), it also can’t resist running that make history! banner across the top of the campaign’s website. And Luntz himself admits that Clinton’s status as a role model for younger women is likely to be reflected at the ballot box. “We’ll have the highest turnout among younger women that we’ve seen in a long, long time because of her,” he predicts. Even Hillary Exceptionalism, it seems, must allow for certain demographic realities.

No one seems more aware of this than John Edwards. While most of Hillary’s opponents are downplaying the gender issue (at least for now), the Edwards people are laboring to neutralize it. And who can blame them? The Republican contenders can arguably ignore gender politics until after the primaries, but their Democratic counterparts must spend the next year or so fighting over a voter pool far more liberal, female, and Clinton-friendly than the nation as a whole. And, unlike fellow Democratic hopeful Barack Obama, Edwards doesn’t have his own historic counternarrative to fall back on. He's the one top-tier Dem with too much testosterone and too little melanin to be any sort of barrier-breaker.

SO FURIOUS strategizing must compensate for the vagaries of nature. Earlier this year, there was the campaign’s bungled hiring of two feminist bloggers—whose past anti-religion postings made them prime targets for scalp-hunting conservatives and ultimately rendered them too hot for the campaign—a nod not simply to the left but to younger women in particular. More successfully, the Edwardses wooed and won Michelman, who, in January, signed on as a senior adviser. Beyond the buzz value of Edwards’s snagging one of feminism's biggest names—in the wake of Michelman’s announcement, the chattering class was atwitter about her implicit rejection of Hillary—Michelman's proEdwards spiel is exceedingly shrewd. Far from dismissing the specialness of a female front-runner, Michelman embraces it. “It is an extraordinarily historical moment,” she marvels, and especially gratifying for a veteran gender warrior like herself. But ... “After full consideration of this historic field of candidates,” she concluded that it is in fact John Edwards who “will appeal to the broadest array of concerns, hopes, aspirations, and needs of women.” Take that, Hil.

The Michelman-Elizabeth Edwards combo packs a potent one-two punch. While Michelman stands ready to question Clinton’s policy stands, Edwards makes a perfect foil for Hillary the woman. With a persona as warm and casual as Clinton’s is cool and aloof, Elizabeth was wildly popular in 2004 and has proved even more so this time around. Her backstory has something for every woman: A smart, ambitious attorney (just like you-know-who), she maintained a family-friendly work schedule until the death of her 16-year-old son, Wade, in 1996, after which she abandoned her practice altogether. A couple of years later, in her late forties, she underwent fertility treatments to have two more children and has since focused her energies on motherhood and on her husband’s political career. When, at a 2006 luncheon sponsored by Ladies’ Home Journal, Edwards asserted that her life choices had made her “more joyful” than Hillary, the remark reverberated in political circles. Edwards said she’d been misquoted, and the Clinton camp reported that Edwards had called to apologize. The underlying issue, however, is likely to linger.

As for “the C word,” when the news broke that Edwards’s cancer had returned and spread to her bones, the immediate assumption was that the campaign would soon close up shop or that her condition would render Edwards (either in practice or in the minds of voters) less of an asset. So far, the opposite appears to be true. Edwards regards fighting for her and her husband’s political vision as the best way to “carry on with her life,” says Michelman, and there has been an outpouring of support and admiration for her decision. “Women are inspired by it,” she says. More concretely, the campaign reported a spike in fund-raising following the March 22 announcement about Edwards’s health.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether any Democrat can derail Hillary. And, the Clinton-hatred of their base notwithstanding, Republican candidates would do well to give some thought to how the XX factor could affect a general election. None of the current GOP crop seems well-equipped (in either personality or policy profile) to address the infamous “gender gap” the way George W. Bush did with his “compassion offensive” in 2000. Hillary may not be your typical female candidate, but she knows how to play politics—including gender politics—as well as anyone. Her competition, regardless of sex, race, or party, forgets this at its peril.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 21, 2007 issue of the magazine.