Many female Clinton supporters are now backing Barack Obama

Marilyn Authenreith, a mother of two in West Jefferson, felt strongly about supporting Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary.

But once the New York senator quit the race, Authenreith switched allegiance to Barack Obama, mainly because she thinks that he – unlike Republican John McCain – will push for universal health care.

“I can't understand the thinking of how someone would jump from Hillary to McCain,” said Authenreith, a 43-year-old furniture business owner. “It doesn't make any sense.”

Now that the Democratic marathon is over, Clinton supporters such as Authenreith are siding heavily with Obama over McCain, polls show. And Obama has taken a wide lead among female voters, belying months of political chatter and polls of primary voters suggesting that disappointment over Clinton's defeat might block the Illinois senator from fully enjoying his party's historic edge among women.

“There are women still struggling with a real sense of grief that Hillary is not the nominee,” said Maren Hesla, who runs campaign programs for Emily's List, a group that promotes female candidates who support abortion rights. But that sense, she said, “will grow smaller with every day that passes from the nomination battles.”

Still, McCain hopes to capitalize on the disillusionment of women who voted for Clinton. The Arizona senator has appeared recently on “Ellen” and “The View,” television talk shows with many female viewers. A top adviser, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, met last week with dozens of Clinton loyalists in Ohio. On Saturday, she joined McCain in a “virtual town hall” with other Clinton supporters.

Aides suggested that McCain's support for a gas-tax holiday, a hawkish foreign policy and steps against climate change would appeal to many women.

But in a year that strongly favors Democrats, McCain could have a tough time cutting into Obama's advantage among women, who made up more than half of the voters in recent presidential elections.

“Women are voting for Obama because they dislike (President) Bush, they dislike McCain, they dislike the war and they're upset about the economy, and those facts override any concerns about the Clinton-Obama primaries,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.

During the final weeks of the Democratic race, Obama took pains to praise Clinton almost daily and to avoid any appearance that he was trying to force her to drop out.

In the days since Clinton abandoned the race and endorsed him, the political arm of Planned Parenthood and other women's groups have rallied behind Obama and joined forces in attacking McCain. Among other things, they have highlighted McCain's opposition to abortion rights. The Republican's moderate image, they say, has misled many women into believing he supports abortion rights.

And now, the nation's economic slowdown is the top concern for voters, and they see Democrats as better suited than Republicans to lead a turnaround. Among those most concerned about economic troubles are white blue-collar women, a swing group targeted by both the McCain and Obama campaigns.

“Women see themselves as more economically vulnerable than men, more likely recipients of the social safety net at some point in their lives, and they see a larger role for government,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll found a wide gap last week: Women favored Obama over McCain, 52 percent to 33 percent. The survey also found that voters who cast ballots for Clinton in the Democratic primaries preferred Obama over McCain, 61 percent to 19 percent.