Was Hillary Clinton’s pollster Mark Penn correct when he told a Washington, D.C. gathering of reporters that up to 24 percent of Republican women may defect to Hillary Clinton? What follows are my purely personal thoughts on Penn’s remarks.

First, here is Penn’s quote: “I think the Republicans are not prepared for the loss of a substantial group of their Republican women voters. Even in the South, I think, you are going to see as much as 24 percent of Republican women defect and make a major difference nationwide….That will be a major unexpected factor here that will throw the Republicans for a loop.”  

Penn’s numbers also threw Democrats for a loop. Senator Barack Obama, in particular, challenged him. The liberal Nationmagazine had Penn’s response: “I was looking recently at Republican women voters (core Republicans and Republican leaners), and their support for Hillary has doubled in the last few months to 13 percent, from less than 6 percent,” Penn wrote on a blog. “Also quite interestingly, ‘Don’t Knows’ surged to 11 percent, so a total of 24 percent would either vote for her or consider voting for her.”

Passing over the pseudo-preciseness of the pollster’s numbers (why not go for broke and make it a quarter?), I want to explore what I think underlies Penn’s optimism: Isn’t at least part of the basis of his claim the Woman Factor? This assumes that the most inspiring thing about Senator Clinton, who actually has a resume of success as a Senator, is being a woman; this will outweigh party-affiliation (though Mr. Penn’s “leaners” presumably don’t have a GOP affiliation?) and the issues for Clinton’s fellow? women and catapult her into the White House (again).

He’s right about one thing: There are those for whom Ms. Clinton’s gender is the all-important, all-inspiring reason to vote for her-these people believe that gender politics are important. They are the ones who bring their daughters to rallies and who wonder if we troglodytes are “ready” for a woman president. When Penn said, at the same breakfast, that there is “an emotional element here of having the first women president,” he was referring to those voters. There are lots of them, but most of them are Democrats.

Like most conservatives, I couldn’t care less about the candidate’s gender. I admire Lady Thatcher-but not because she’s a woman.  As with Senator Clinton, it is her political philosophy, her dynamism, and her commitment that made her a great politician.

To believe that a fourth of GOP women will defect to the banner of Hillary is to believe that they are less issue-oriented than they, in fact, are. It is to believe that the notion of a woman in the White House (which will inevitably happen, whether this election or not) is such a sentimental favorite that it outweighs their belief in lower taxes, school choice, and a solution to health care insurance that doesn’t ultimately make more people dependent on Uncle Sam.

Whatever tugs of sisterhood GOP women might feel, they will remember a remark from Ms. Clinton herself: “I have a million ideas. The country can’t afford them all.” While some of her ideas may be attractive, women must ask: Who will pay for them?

This brings us to a factor that could, indeed, help Clinton among women: Time and time again, women have shown themselves susceptible to the siren call of government programs. Big government appeals to women, especially poor women, because of the services it offers.  We need to make the point that somebody pays for these benefits: All of us, the taxpayers, including the many of the same women who want these very programs.

While I have no sentimental feelings about a woman president, having a woman in the race-may make 2008 the right year to talk seriously about what is good for women.  Whether you support Senator Clinton or not, we have a golden opportunity to talk about women and what policies best support them. 

Now, as never before, is our time to make the point that women will fare better when we have a strong economy, more options, whether for health care or good schools for their children, and smaller government.

No, GOP women are unlikely to defect for some sentimental reason. And perhaps can serve as a teaching moment for women who have always seen Uncle Sam as a sugar daddy.  Perhaps a future poll will show that more than a quarter of Democratic women are considering defection from their nominee to support policies that give them more freedom to control their lives and their money.  It’s at least something to work toward.

Charlotte Hays is Senior Editor for the Independent Women’s Forum.