SEATTLE - Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama appealed for the hearts and votes of female voters in Washington state Friday, part of the state-by-state struggle that could determine who becomes the Democratic nominee for president.
Both candidates have spent months calling and wooing top elected women, seeking their endorsements and, in the process, forcing them into difficult choices.
Just as black politicians who endorse Clinton risk being on the wrong side of history if Obama prevails, so do female officials take a gamble in backing Obama, knowing that Clinton could become the nation's first woman to win the White House.
No state better illustrates the competition than Washington, whose Democratic caucus is Saturday. The governor and both U.S. senators are Democratic women. Clinton scored first, winning the endorsements of Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, two women from different political backgrounds.
Cantwell made a fortune in a high-tech company and ousted an incumbent Republican in 2000. Murray won an upstart campaign in 1992, running as a "suburban mom in tennis shoes," and has moved into the party's leadership ranks in the Senate.
"Hillary is here to listen, to answer questions and to make history and Washington state is here to help her do that," Cantwell said Friday in introducing Clinton at a rally at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
They personify the scope of female support that Clinton has drawn nationwide, helping explain why she has outpolled Obama among women in most states so far.
But Obama has fought hard, and Friday he had his own coup. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire endorsed him to thunderous applause from more than 16,000 people crammed into the Key Arena, where the Seattle Supersonics play. Another 3,000 filled an overflow room.
Gregoire did not hide the difficulty of her decision. "I've done some soul-searching," she told the crowd. "I've done a lot of debating," she said, and concluded that Obama is the best person to succeed President Bush.
"I believe the nation faces significant challenges domestically and internationally and Obama is the person who has the ability to reach across artificial divides and move our national forward," she told The Associated Press before attending the rally.
With both Clinton and Obama campaigning in this state Thursday and Friday, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a page-one story Friday headlined: "Among women, contest is one for the ages."
It described many Seattle-area Democratic women splitting largely along generational lines, with most older women backing Clinton, 60, and many younger ones opting for Obama, 46.
Gregoire is among several women elected fairly recently from politically competitive states who have endorsed Obama, while many of their more veteran colleagues have backed Clinton. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano gave Obama big boosts in their states, as did Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
Obama also has benefited from endorsements by key female celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy. California first lady Maria Shriver also backed him, but could not deliver the state for him.
Clinton's list of key female supporters is longer, and includes more well-established Democrats. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein helped the New York senator win the Golden State's primary last week. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland is a key Clinton backer in that state's primary on Tuesday.
For Clinton, women's support is doubly helpful. Women vote in larger numbers than men in Democratic primaries. They made up 57 percent of the turnout in the 22-state Super Tuesday contests, according to exit polls.
Clinton won a clear majority of the female votes that day. But Obama's strength among blacks, men and younger voters has kept him roughly even in the race for the nomination.