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Is Nikki Haley's gender a factor with women voters?

Leading up to the 2008 Democratic primary, many South Carolina women backed Hillary Clinton for president because of the historic nature of her run as a woman.

The stage has been reset.

During these final weeks of the gubernatorial race, both Democratic and Republican women say the fact that Republican nominee Nikki Haley is a woman - and the first one to win a major state party's nomination - is not affecting their choice.

Even the candidate herself downplays the historic nature of her candidacy, instead concentrating on her platform of less government and lower taxes.

Both Haley and Democrat Vincent Sheheen are vying for the female vote, which represents a majority - 55 percent - of the state's registered voters.

For now, the two candidates are on equal footing with women voters. A new poll by Winthrop University shows women equally split in their support, with 42 percent saying they'll vote for Haley and 42 percent for Sheheen. The margin of error is 5 percent.

So what's changed from 2008? Is it because the woman candidate is a Republican this time?

No, said Harriet Keyserling, a former Democratic member of the state House of Representatives from Beaufort and member of a new group, Women for Sheheen, which is attempting to bring more female voters into Sheheen's fold.

"Hillary has been so active in so many areas and spoken for women. Women could get excited about her representing us. But Haley has done nothing for women," she said.

Keyserling, who founded the legislative women's caucus, served on a committee to help Haley get elected to the House in 2004. But, she said, she's since been disappointed with Haley's legislative record.

"We all want more (women) in the State House, but not Haley," Keyserling said. "Anyone who's been (in the House of Representatives) for six years and is a member of the majority party and they've only gotten one bill passed -- which has to do with hair-washing -- this person should not be governor."

But Haley's female backers say her fresh approach to governing and willingness to stand up to Democrats far outweigh any questions about her legislative record.

"This country is in a mess right now," said Patricia Ryan, a Haley backer who lives on the Isle of Palms. "The only way we're going to get out of it is to elect Republicans and isolate (President) Obama. Haley is the right one for that job."

Ryan and several other Haley backers say Haley's gender is of no consequence.

"This isn't about a candidate being a man or a woman. I don't vote that way," Ryan said.

"She's the best candidate and that's that," added Patricia Maas, a Haley backer from Mount Pleasant.

Burnette Schreicker of Folly Beach conceded it's somewhat exciting Haley is a woman. But it isn't influencing her vote.

"Haley is strong. She wouldn't back down from those men (in the State House)," Schreicker said. "But I'd never vote for anyone because they're a woman."

Mark Tompkins, a USC political science professor, said he isn't surprised women are not embracing Haley's femininity.

"A female candidate can find issues and find a way to talk about issues that embrace her gender. You can talk about family, the needs of children and so on and still be a conservative. There's not much of that going on. Haley doesn't want to be viewed as that kind of a candidate," Tompkins said.

Also, Republican women are less likely to embrace candidates specifically because of their gender or race.

"Republican women, it seems to me, don't respond to women candidates the way Democratic women do," he said. "The identity politics seems to be a part of the Democratic story, not the Republican story."

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