A top adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton predicted yesterday that the New York Democrat could capture 24 percent of the vote among Republican women in the general election.
Clinton chief strategist and pollster Mark J. Penn said the novelty of a female presidential nominee may cause nearly one in four Republican women to “defect” from their party. That could drive turnout among female voters overall and “could put into play” such states as Ohio and Florida, along with five or six other swing states.
“The Republicans are not prepared for the loss of a substantial group of their Republican women voters,” Mr. Penn told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, basing his speculation on private polling.
The “emotional element” of potentially having the first female president could “make a difference nationwide,” said Mr. Penn, who runs the District-based public relations firm Burson-Marsteller and did polling for former President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Penn also said yesterday that Mrs. Clinton polls “very strong” in Arkansas, where her husband served as governor many years, and added: “She’s winning in the key swing states.”
He said Mrs. Clinton is in a “stronger position” this early in the election season than previous Democrats have been in recent cycles, and once accidentally referred to her as president.
The comments came as Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic challengers stepped up their criticism of the front-runner, accusing her of crowning herself the 2008 winner too early.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois a few hours earlier had compared Mrs. Clinton to President Bush — half-joking on “The Tonight Show” that “Hillary is not the first politician in Washington to declare ‘mission accomplished’ a little too soon.”
He also sent out a fundraising e-mail that mentioned Mrs. Clinton with the subject line: “Inevitable?”
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina took a similar tone this week, saying Mrs. Clinton acts as if she already has won the nomination.
Mr. Edwards started a “True Blue Majority” initiative with supporters from red states to prove he is the candidate who is most electable.
Mr. Penn downplayed Mrs. Clinton’s front-runner status and characterized the campaign as fighting with humility for every vote, especially in Iowa. “We take nothing for granted,” he said.
Mr. Penn said there is “absolutely no sense” that Mrs. Clinton feels like the inevitable nominee, noting, “the campaign is working hard every day.”
Edwards campaign pollster Harrison Hickman mocked Mr. Penn’s comments on “24 percent” of female voters, saying: “He seems to have dropped the decimal from between the 2 and the 4.”
Obama pollster Joel Benenson also dismissed Mr. Penn’s remarks as “entirely baseless and refuted by a number of public polls.”