Judy Staresinic and Krystal Soto are the sort of women who could make Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton president.
Staresinic, a 45-year-old convention planner, and Soto, who will turn 18 just in time to vote next November, had never campaigned for a political candidate before. Yet there they were earlier this month, cheering the New York senator at her Sin City campaign stops, each doing her own small part to put a woman in the White House.
"It's really important," said Staresinic, a longtime Democratic voter who joined a predominantly female group of several dozen volunteers who lined the street to greet the candidate's arrival at a debate. "Women always have something to prove, but when they achieve success, they're generally better than the men. They try harder."
Soto, who plans to attend the University of Nevada/Las Vegas next year, likes Clinton for a different reason.
"She's breaking barriers," said Soto, who attended a Clinton rally here two days after the debate. "Once she's president, from there, anybody can be president."
To hear the Clinton campaign talk, there are millions of women like Staresinic and Soto out there -- enough to turn the "gender gap" into a chasm and redraw the electoral map in Clinton's favor.
And while Clinton's critics doubt that thesis and say her polarizing nature will doom her candidacy, experts on women and politics say Clinton's campaign could very well benefit from an influx of new women voters.
"There will be people who have never voted before, from grandmas to granddaughters, who will come out to vote if the [Democratic] nominee is Hillary Clinton," predicted Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.
Of course, the general election is nearly a year away, and Clinton is in a tightening race against Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and others for the Democratic nomination.
But one thing is clear: In Clinton's race both for the Democratic nomination and ultimately the presidency, the strongest card she holds very well may be the gender card.
A Zogby International poll released last week showed Clinton with an 11-point lead nationwide over Obama, and it was entirely due to her support from women. The poll found that while the two candidates were virtually tied in the battle for male voters, Clinton had an 18 point lead among women.
>Also leads Giuliani
Other polls show that Clinton also holds a big advantage among women in a prospective general election battle with Rudy Giuliani, the Republican front-runner.
In October, for example, the Pew Research Center found Clinton beating Giuliani by 20 points among women. That's double what her lead was overall, and nearly triple the margin by which women favored Democrat John Kerry over Republican George W. Bush in 2004.
"Her numbers are extraordinarily strong" among women, Bystrom said.
That's something the Clinton campaign has planned for, noticed and trumpeted.
From the moment that Clinton announced her campaign in a Web video that showed her relaxing comfortably in her living room, the campaign has targeted women in both subtle and unsubtle ways.
While Clinton never makes the groundbreaking nature of her candidacy the centerpiece of her campaign appearances, it's always there at the edges. She often mentions elderly women she meets on the campaign trail who proudly note that they were born before women could vote -- and now plan to vote for the first woman president.
Clinton reflected on it all at a speech at Wellesley College, her alma mater, last month.
"I am inspired every day by the people I meet on the campaign trail -- you know, the mothers and fathers who lift their little girls on their shoulders or lean over and whisper in their ears, 'See, honey, in America, you can be anything you want to be,' " she said. "We're ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling."
To accomplish that, the Clinton campaign has a full-scale effort set up to target women voters.
The plan is to develop deep interpersonal networks to spread the word and encourage women -- even those who have never voted before -- to vote for Clinton, said Ann Lewis, the director of women's outreach for the Clinton campaign. There's a nurse's network, for example, and "Women for Hillary Councils" in states across the country.
"We know on the ground that the women who come to Hillary's open meetings and living room discussions are often women outside the political system," Lewis said -- adding that the trick will be getting those women enrolled and voting.
Clinton could get some help in that effort from Women's Voices. Women Vote, a nonpartisan effort to bring the 20 million unmarried women who didn't vote in 2004 into the voting booth four years later.
But there's no guarantee that a majority of those newly enrolled women will support Clinton, stressed Page S. Gardner, the effort's founder and president.
"There is a motivational aspect to her candidacy among women, and single women in particular," Gardner said. "But on the other hand, our data has shown that women decide late, and the candidate who really speaks to their lives is ultimately the candidate they choose."
For that reason, many experts see the women's vote both as a wild card in the 2008 race and as Clinton's trump card.
>Focus on single women
That's because Clinton's support is concentrated not among married women, who vote reliably and trend Republican, but among the sort of women that Gardner's group is targeting -- single women, many of them young, who are relatively new to the political game.
"Their political sensibilities are imperfectly developed," said Linda Hirshman, a retired professor of women's studies and the author of "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World." "They can go to the rallies and then not go to vote. It's extremely foolish, but that's sometimes what they do."
Such factors make the tightly contested Democratic battle in Iowa, which will kick off the primary season with its Jan. 3 caucuses, unusually difficult to forecast.
"The polling is going to be very inaccurate," said Steffan W. Schmidt, another Iowa State political scientist.
Both Clinton and Obama are likely to attract many first-time voters to their barrier-busting candidacies.
"We just don't have any idea who is going to be taking part in the caucuses," Schmidt said.
Despite all the encouraging polling data regarding Clinton and the women's vote, Clinton faces one daunting fact: She's polarizing among women as well as among men.
A recent Gallup poll found that 36 percent of all women (along with 50 percent of men) said they would not consider voting for Clinton. Some cite her continued marriage to former President Bill Clinton in the wake of his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, or her personality, as the reasons they just don't like her.
And even though Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, contends that upwards of 24 percent of Republican women may vote for Clinton, Obama pollster Joel Benenson sees the numbers very differently.
He notes that a recent Cook/RT Strategies poll found that 7 percent of Republican women would support Clinton while 9 percent of Democratic women would opt for Giuliani.
"While it may not be her fault, Clinton appears to be as polarizing a figure as ever, showing the least crossover appeal of any of the Democratic candidates," Benenson said in an October memo to reporters.
>65% of her support
Of course, Clinton's polarizing nature also means that plenty of people -- like Staresinic and Soto -- are in thrall to the Clinton candidacy. And it appears that a majority of those who are in thrall are women, given that women account for about 65 percent of the people attending Clinton's campaign events, according to her campaign.
"She's been strong in her positions for 15 years," said Staresinic, who said she felt so strongly that Clinton should be president that she decided to campaign for her. "I want my voice to be heard," she said.
Similarly, Haydee Acosta, a 43-year-old mother of two teenagers, said she went to a Clinton rally at a Las Vegas high school because she's convinced that Clinton will make the best possible president.
"It's because we need a change in the economy and in the country, and because Hillary is a woman -- and women are strong," Acosta said.