WASHINGTON — A friend of mine in New York — a high-powered professional woman — told me the other day that she thought the country had moved beyond the point where women should want to vote for Hillary Clinton just because she would be the first woman president. “Just vote for the best person,” she said, with what sounds like impeccable logic.

But Clinton, according to all the polls, is winning overwhelming support from women voters. And the reason, I think, is that there’s a flaw in my friend’s logic: Except in some sort of arcane higher-dimensional geometry comprehensible only to mathematicians, you can’t get beyond a point that you’ve never actually reached.

The fact is that we’ve never had a female president. And for many women across the country — especially those of the boomer generation who have seen the role of women in American society change so dramatically — Clinton’s election would be a historic milestone and a source of great pride.

That’s certainly not the only reason Clinton leads the national polls for the Democratic nomination. She started with universal name-recognition and has proceeded to run a smart, largely mistake-free campaign. She is surrounded by the aura of her husband’s eight-year administration, and while that may be a mixed blessing if she gets to the general election, it’s a huge asset among the Democratic faithful.

But her lead, among women, over Barack Obama and her other rivals is so huge — and so much greater than her lead among men — that it has to have something to do with gender. Which is perfectly understandable.

Obama, of course, would be the first African-American president, which would be equally historic. And the predictable notes of caution that must be inserted into any column about Clinton’s campaign — that the polls in Iowa show a close three-way race, that anything can happen in New Hampshire, that Obama can rebound in South Carolina, that Howard Dean was leading the polls four years ago, that nothing matters until someone, somewhere, actually casts a vote — are more than cover-your-behind caveats, they’re real. There’s plenty of time for the whole nature of the Democratic race to change.

But some of the numbers are stunning. A new national CNN poll, released Wednesday, showed that among registered Democrats, 68 percent of African-American women said Clinton was their likely choice for the nomination while only 25 percent backed Obama. By contrast, Obama led Clinton — 46 percent to 42 percent — among African-American men.

The CNN sample of black voters was small, meaning those numbers are not precise. But even taking into account the margin of error, the poll reports an unmistakable tendency that clearly works in Clinton’s favor: To the extent that African-American voters are taking identity into account as they ponder the presidential race, women are considering not only race but also gender. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, has called it “the ‘sistah’ vote.”

That advantage among blacks is mirrored among Democratic women overall — and with a series of “Women Changing America” campaign events during the past week, including a huge fundraiser Wednesday in Washington, Clinton has been making an overt appeal to consolidate this support. Her campaign Web site is full of encomiums from women — professional women, working-class women, stay-at-home mothers — who express their pride in the first front-running female presidential candidate. Clinton asks voters to help her shatter “the highest glass ceiling.”

At recent campaign appearances, Clinton has told of meeting an elderly woman — born when women didn’t even have the vote — who came up and said she just wanted to shake the hand of the first woman president.

As the old proverb goes, “women hold up half the sky” — actually, a bit more than half. If Clinton can sustain her advantage among women — especially among the working-class and middle-class women who could be said to constitute the spine of the Democratic Party — it’s hard to see how Obama, John Edwards or any of the other challengers can gain much ground on her.

Not that they aren’t trying. Clinton’s rivals are full of promises and proposals that are meant to appeal to women voters — initiatives on issues such as family leave and health insurance, for example. All the Democratic contenders have records of support for gender equality. All of them, especially Obama and Edwards, are more than capable of projecting themselves as strong-yet-sensitive, modern, caring guys.

But they can’t hide the fact that they’re guys. And she’s not.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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