LEVITTOWN, Pa. — Like many women over 50, Paula Houwen was eager to vote for Hillary Clinton for president.
"I was impressed when she was first lady. She wasn't the country's trophy wife," the 56-year-old suburban Philadelphia pharmacist recalled.
Today, though, Houwen's no longer a Clinton fan.
"I do not like the way Hillary Clinton has run her campaign," she said.
Clinton's strongest core of support — white women — is beginning to erode in Pennsylvania, the site of the critical April 22 Democratic presidential primary, and a loss here could effectively end her White House run.
A Quinnipiac University survey taken April 3-6 in Pennsylvania found that Clinton's support fell 6 percentage points in a week among white women. Nationally, a Lifetime Networks poll of women found that 26 percent said they liked Clinton less now than in January, while only 15 percent said they liked her more.
"These are Democratic women who waited all their lives for a woman president, but Hillary is not turning them on," said polling analyst Clay Richards.
The Clinton campaign is aware of the danger, and last week it began dispatching friends of Clinton from New York, Washington and elsewhere to key Pennsylvania communities to have "living room chats" with women.
"We thought this might happen," senior Clinton adviser Ann Lewis said of the erosion. A key reason, she said, is rival Barack Obama's ad barrage, notably his gentle but persistent reminders to TV viewers that he's well-equipped to heal the ailing economy.
"I can't overcome the media barrage, so we need to go back to talking to people about their personal concerns," said Lewis, "and emphasizing her experience."
Economic concerns are at the top of most women's lists, and "Obama is coming across to more and more people as qualified on that issue," Richards said.
Interviews in suburban Philadelphia, an area full of swing voters who are likely to determine the outcome of the primary, found other reasons for Clinton's shaky support.
A lot of white women, and for that matter white men, want the race to end and increasingly consider Obama an acceptable nominee.
"There may be a general, reluctant acceptance that things just don't look that good for Clinton," said Susan Carroll, a professor of political science and women's and gender studies at Rutgers University.
The most familiar echo among many Pennsylvania women when they discuss Clinton, however, is disappointment. Ask them when they became disillusioned with the woman who would be president, and they can cite almost the exact moment.
For Clare Howard, a meditation teacher from Southhampton, it was the night in January when Bill Clinton suggested that Obama did well in the South Carolina primary because of his race.
That went too far, said Howard, 60. "It was like they would do anything to win," she said.
Joan Schmidt, 60, a school psychologist in Levittown, grew tired of hearing Clinton tout — and exaggerate — her experience.
Jane Dovel, 68, an artist in Doylestown, turned away from Clinton after hearing the New York senator's reaction to Obama's comments that Ronald Reagan had been a "transformative political figure."
Clinton fired back that Republicans hadn't had better ideas. "I don't think it's a better idea to privatize Social Security," she said. "I don't think it's a better idea to eliminate the minimum wage."
That's not what Obama had said, recalled Dovel. "What Clinton said was a blatant lie," she said. "From that moment on, she was history. She was not to be trusted."
Obama's increasing ability to convince these women that he's on their side has contributed to their shift away from Clinton.
Most are old enough to remember John F. Kennedy, and it's common to hear them say how much the Illinois senator reminds them of the young president. "He's definitely someone who knows how to get everyone on board," said Jill Saul, a Bristol teacher.
Howard was struck by how much her three children were impressed with Obama — much the way Democratic youngsters were taken with Kennedy.
"If I ever want to look my kids in the eye again," she laughed, "I have to go with Obama."
The Clinton forces realize that a new trend_ Clinton, after all, still leads Obama among white women by 28 points in the Quinnipiac poll — could quickly become a tidal wave if left unchecked.
So they're planning more living-room visits, closed to the media and not publicized, as a way of reminding people of Clinton's personal qualities.
Clinton is getting to be a tougher sell, though, because a lot of women have thought long and hard about moving away from someone whom they've wanted for a long time.
"If elected, I'm sure she'll do a good job," said Michele Scarborough, a Quakertown borough councilwoman. "But I just don't feel she's one of us."
To read the Lifetime Networks poll, go to:
To read the Quinnipiac poll, go to:
McClatchy Newspapers 2008