A pair of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's worst nightmares trudged past a giant blue "Hillary for President" sign outside the Iowa State Fair...

DES MOINES, Iowa — A pair of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s worst nightmares trudged past a giant blue “Hillary for President” sign outside the Iowa State Fair with palpable disgust.

“Hillary can go to hell,” said Alice Aszman, 66, a Democrat from Ottumwa. “I’ll never vote for her. I don’t think a woman should be president. I think a man should. They’ve got more authority.”

Her husband, Daniel, 50, also a Democrat, agreed: “I think women should stay home instead of being boss.”

That’s not what Clinton wants to hear from voters like the Aszmans, who described themselves as “working class.” But there’s also no question that, even as Clinton, the New York Democrat, widens her lead in national polls of Democratic voters, becoming the first woman president won’t be easy.

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Appealing to female voters as a sister-in-arms won’t be enough to win the White House, and a significant gender gap has emerged in polls between levels of male and female support for Clinton.

A July poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers by the University of Iowa found that Clinton had 30 percent support among women and 18 percent among men. By comparison, there was no difference in gender support for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who got 21 percent from both men and women.

The same poll found that 32 percent of women strongly agreed that Clinton was electable, while only 14 percent of men did. And 30 percent of women strongly agreed that Clinton was the Democrats’ strongest candidate, while only 17 percent of men did.

Clinton brings special baggage to the campaign, demonized as she was through the 1990s by conservative talk-show hosts haranguing the white male voters whom Clinton must woo now. That’s one reason why Clinton has the highest “disapproval ratings” among Democrats, ranging into the mid-40s in national polls.

She addresses the unique nature of her candidacy at every campaign stop: “I’m proud to be running to be the first woman president, but I’m not running because I’m a woman,” Clinton tells voters. “I’m running because I think I’m the best qualified and experienced to hit the ground running and get the job done.”

At several recent campaign events in Iowa, many male and female voters said they didn’t care about Clinton’s gender.

“This country’s in bad shape. I think it’s going to take someone with Hillary’s ability to get things done,” said Roger Davids of Council Bluffs, a retired Army noncommissioned officer whose years of service showed on his weary face, wiry frame and the aged tattoos festooning his arms. “I think she’s a doer. It’s not all talk.”

Davids called the United States “long overdue” for a woman. “Look at Margaret Thatcher. She did a good job.”

Nevertheless, several voters conceded there is a subtext of gender bias apparent.

Female trouble

Some of it comes from women: “Women are their own worst enemy,” said Sheryl McConkey, 53, an inventory manager from Council Bluffs who supports Clinton. One female friend told McConkey, “How can she manage the country when she couldn’t manage her own husband?”

But polls show women are Clinton’s “natural constituency … much more likely to support Hillary Clinton than men are,” said David Redlawsk, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. “Some of it is just who Hillary Clinton is and people’s responses to her. Some of it is … some men still won’t vote for a woman, no matter what they tell a pollster.”

Charles McConkey, 52, of Council Bluffs, is a maintenance mechanic at a pipe foundry. He’s undecided but considering Clinton: “There’s no doubt in my mind” she’s capable of being president.

But he added, “I know a lot of people who won’t” vote for Clinton because she’s a woman. “It’s just stupid. They won’t come out and say it. But a lot of guys are just stupid.”

Dick Applegate, 63, a retired steelworker from Waukee, agreed: “I think we’re ready” for a woman president. “But there’s a lot of ‘em against it. A lot of ‘em don’t think it’s time. It’s an element.”

That may not matter much in preliminary rounds. In a caucus, candidates must simply identify their most committed supporters and get them out. Turnout in Iowa’s Democratic caucus will likely be 20 percent or less of registered voters, evenly split between men and women. A small subset of hard-core supporters — that “natural constituency” — can take a candidate a long way in a crowded field.

In New Hampshire, the first primary state, female primary voters outnumber male voters by about 60 percent to 40 percent, so a similar gender gap there is no problem, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

In a general election, however, it could be a major problem, because men traditionally vote for Republicans at a higher rate than women vote for Democrats.

Bridging the divide

Clinton is trying to close the gender gap in several ways. She runs on a theme of “strength and experience” aimed more for the general-election audience.

“I think she’s got the leadership ability. She shows that in the debates,” said Arthur Henderson, 70, of Council Bluffs, a retired car-maintenance man for the Union Pacific Railroad. He’s undecided. “She don’t take the rear seat to nothing.”

Her meld of populism and responsibility also could appeal to wary males. Her first television ad of the campaign, aired this month, swiped at the Bush administration, claiming it ignores the daily struggles of average Americans.

Her stump speech squarely targets economic angst, which cuts across gender lines. She promises to end the “the steady and slow erosion of the American middle class … it’s not rich people who made this country great. It’s the middle class!”

Finally, Clinton’s underrated retail politicking skills may help win over skeptics of either gender. On the trail in Iowa, she won easy laughs by displaying humor and empathy.

In Waukee, she impishly exclaimed, “Ooh, I feel like Oprah,” as she waded into the crowd with a microphone. At the State Fair, she announced, “I’m gonna eat my way across the fair,” and did just that, ingesting an impressive array of Midwestern soul food.

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Clinton supporter, said in an interview that he thinks Clinton will be able to overcome gender-based doubts because of the personal nature of politics in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

“The more people get to touch her and see her and hear her, the more they know she sees them,” Vilsack said, echoing Clinton’s TV ads.