WASHINGTON -- If she weren't married to the man whose name is, at the moment, at least penciled in at the top of the Democratic ticket, if she weren't his No. 1 surrogate and booster and defender, Hillary Clinton might not vote for her husband in a primary election.
The white, 44-year-old, Yale-educated woman fits the profile of the Democratic voter who, midway through primary season, is the least enamored of Bill Clinton, whose momentum has been slowed by questions of honesty and character.
Ironically, the Arkansas governor's support in primary voting and opinion polls has been weakest among his peers: college-educated baby boomers. And women in the 30-to-49 age group -- a coveted bloc of voters perceived as vital to a presi
dential candidate's victory in the fall -- have been even more elusive than their male contemporaries.
"White women, particularly younger, college-educated women, are less supportive," says pollster Celinda Lake, whose firm, Greenberg-Lake, is the Clinton campaign's chief poll taker. "Clinton's message of opportunity and responsibility, his message of values, particularly appeals to older voters."
Not surprisingly, younger women's disaffection for Mr. Clinton, 45, also revolves around the "character issue," admits Ms. Lake, using the catchall phrase that has come to describe allegations of marital infidelity, draft evasion, conflict-of-interest deals and general honesty.
Some female baby boomers say Mr. Clinton lost their vote as soon as Gennifer Flowers surfaced with her bleached blond hair, her telephone tapes and her allegation that she and the governor had been lovers -- a claim Mr. Clinton denied.
"I don't trust him," said Cathy Sweeney, 40, of Bethesda, a working mother of four.
"What upsets me is his arrogance, his thinking that he can get away with something like that," she said, although she said she would vote for Mr. Clinton if he were the nominee. "There may not be any connection between having an extramarital affair and running the country, but I feel if his judgment is that questionable on matters I consider very important, I wouldn't want him making decisions on my behalf."
"It's a dishonesty issue," said Susan Coplin, 33, a Los Angeles lawyer. "I wouldn't stay married to him. I can't even stand to watch him anymore. He is good-looking and polished. But that works to his disadvantage vis-a-vis me. Now I have a totally different read on it."
These women are in one of the most sought-after groups of swing voters in the country, and their dissatisfaction with Mr. Clinton threatens to weaken his chances if he becomes the Democratic nominee against President Bush.
So far, strong support from older women has made up for the deficit of primary votes from younger to middle-aged women, so no overall gender gap has skewed voting for Mr. Clinton. But there are some gender differences among subgroups of voters that have escaped widespread notice. In last week's New York primary, for example, he earned 31 percent of the vote among Catholic men age 30 to 45, compared with 12 percent among Catholic women.
A recent survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press showed that 49 percent of women age 30 to 49 rate Mr. Clinton "very or mostly unfavorable," compared with 38 percent of men in that age group.
It's almost predictable that this segment of the electorate would recoil from Mr. Clinton, says Robert Abelson, professor of psychology and political science at Yale University. "Women of that age group, close to contemporaries of the Clintons, would be especially sensitive to questions of 'What is their marriage really like?' Hillary Clinton may be someone they can identify with," he said.
While older women may be "charmed" by the outgoing, articulate candidate, women closer to Mr. Clinton's age "may be keeping their distance," said Mr. Abelson. "Suspicion arises because he's charming."
Indeed, one 34-year-old Democrat from Middleburg, Va., suspects her negative response to Mr. Clinton could be "an extension of the cautions you learn about dating -- to steer away from someone who's good-looking and glib because you can't trust them."
Some believe such preoccupation with a candidate's persona and character reflects a generational change and an attitude specific to more recent generations of women.
"The younger generation of women are much tougher on issues surrounding alleged womanizing," said Jane Danowitz of the Women's Campaign Fund. "There's a whole new generation of people who are much purer about politics."
In the past, she said, before women's issues commanded much attention, "women were much more willing to overlook personal indiscretions" by candidates or politicians who championed women's rights in the political arena. Danowitz.
If young, college-educated women have failed to embrace the Clinton candidacy with fervor, men in this category have not sprinted that far ahead with support either.