ST. PAUL — The names at the top of the ballot on Nov. 4 will be McCain and Obama, but the juicier battle this fall for an important group of swing voters — white working women with children — may be fought between the other two stars of the Republican and Democratic conventions, Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Ms. Palin, the governor of Alaska and Mr. McCain’s running mate, gave the best speech of her party’s convention on Wednesday night, drawing 37 million television viewers. And she made it clear that she aimed to win over undecided women voters with her own version of the history-making, “I’m one of you” message that Mrs. Clinton employed to great effect in her fight for the Democratic nomination.
Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, has a legacy to protect: She has no intention of turning over her “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling,” as she called her supporters, to Ms. Palin, a social conservative whose policy positions are poison in Hillaryland. What is more, Mrs. Clinton wants to be the one to make history as the first woman to win at the top of a presidential ticket, be it in 2012 or 2016.
The question is, will Mrs. Clinton fight Ms. Palin to help her former rival, Mr. Obama? Clinton advisers say that Mrs. Clinton wants to do everything she can to elect Mr. Obama, so that she cannot be blamed if he loses — yet she also does not want to be too closely associated with him if he does lose, nor to tarnish her own image by taking on a rookie national politician like Ms. Palin and possibly coming up short.
Mrs. Clinton is heading to Florida on Monday to campaign for Mr. Obama. And while his advisers expect her to serve as a counterweight to the McCain-Palin ticket, Clinton advisers are emphatic that Mrs. Clinton does not plan to attack Ms. Palin. Whether that remains the case through the fall is an open question, especially if Ms. Palin starts doing as well with, say, women who watch “The View” as Mrs. Clinton did.
Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Palin have little in common beyond their breakout performances at the conventions and the soap opera aspects of their family lives. Mrs. Clinton always faces high expectations; Ms. Palin faced low expectations this week, and benefited from them. Mrs. Clinton can seem harsh when she goes on the attack; Ms. Palin has shown a knack for attacking without seeming nasty.
Mrs. Clinton has a lot of experience; Ms. Palin, not so much. Mrs. Clinton is pantsuits; Ms. Palin is skirts. Some Republican delegates in St. Paul saw starker differences.
“Sarah’s smile is sincere, which I never felt from Hillary, who has anger and resentment in her eyes,” said Ann Schmuecker, a delegate from Mountain Home, Arkansas, where she met the Clintons decades ago.
Friends of Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, say she is the Obama campaign’s greatest weapon in pointing out Democrats’ differences with Ms. Palin and Mr. McCain.
“With two Supreme Court vacancies likely in the next four years, Senator Clinton will remind women
it is not in their interests to allow Governor Palin to be one heartbeat from the presidency,” said Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Clinton and a long-time friend of Mrs. Clinton.
If the election remains close, the next president could very well be picked by what Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist, calls “Wal-Mart Moms” — white working women with children living in the exurbs and in rural parts of battleground states, who may make up a swing sliver of the electorate.
“The real issue is whether soft Democrats and soft Republicans with a similar demographic profile, like white working women, will vote their economic self-interest and support Obama or whether McCain-Palin will be able to scare them away,” said Mr. Lehane, who was an adviser on the Gore campaign in 2000.
“In this context, Hillary and the former president are critical players, as they are a small sub-set of Democrats who can walk into a kitchen in Parma, Ohio, or Macomb County, Michigan, and instantaneously connect with those very kind of voters,” he added.
At the same time, it may be against Mr. Obama’s interests to turn the election into a proxy fight between Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Palin. Obama v. McCain may be more favorable turf; Mr. Obama does not want to get bogged down fighting a vice-presidential candidate, or rely too much on Mrs. Clinton carrying his water.
White female independents once disliked Mrs. Clinton, largely for cultural reasons, though many came to see her as an ally on their issues or admire her as a fighter. Ms. Palin might well end up emerging as an appealing heroine to these voters; the Obama campaign has no way of knowing right now.
There is no evidence yet that Ms. Palin could deliver blocs of voters to Mr. McCain, so there is no incentive right now for Mr. Obama to want a Clinton-Palin slugfest to influence the electoral utcome.
Mike McCurry, who was press secretary to the 1988 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Lloyd Bentsen, noted that the two men at the top of the ticket have by far the greatest power to direct the race.
“Aside from the vice-presidential debate and the ability of running mates to make a splash in select media markets, no one but Obama and McCain have control of the national storylines in the presidential race,” said Mr. McCurry, who was also a press secretary in the Clinton White House.
How much Mrs. Clinton wants to help Mr. Obama is another matter. Some of her aides note with a hint of resentment that Mr. Obama did not pick her as his running mate; he did not even vet her fully. Plus, they add, her fall calendar also includes campaigning for Senate Democratic candidates, not just for Mr. Obama.
Indeed, some Republicans in St. Paul predicted that Mrs. Clinton might not turn out to be “the great asset” that Obama advisers like to call her.
“Let me tell you something,” said Luanne Van Werven, a Republican delegate from Lynden, Wash., as the convention closed late Thursday night. “I secretly think Hillary loves Sarah Palin.” Why?
“Because she wants Barack to lose, so she can run again, of course!” Ms. Van Werven said with a laugh. “I just bet Hillary was watching Sarah’s speech on T.V. Wednesday night and cheering, ‘You go, girl!’ ”