WASHINGTON - Elinor Walker has enthusiastically plunged into campaigns since the age of 14, passing out signs and sticking leaflets in doors for her favorite candidates.
Not this year. The 48-year-old waitress-turned-lawyer from Rockville plans to sit it out this fall, in defiance of the message Sen. Hillary Clinton delivered in a campaign-ending speech here yesterday that included a call to "join me in working as hard for Barack Obama as you have for me."
"There are many of us who do the grunt work in November who will be missing in action," Walker said as she waited for Clinton to speak inside the National Building Museum. "This is my party, and it's my responsibility to discipline my party. There have to be consequences."
Consequences go only so far, however. Walker acknowledged that it "does her heart good" that the party is poised to nominate an African-American and said that "at this point" it is her intention to cast a write-in ballot for Clinton - a sign that her preference could change.
For millions of Clinton voters - particularly women - who saw their dream of electing the nation's first female president fall short, reconciliation will take more than words. Many female voters say that Clinton was treated unfairly by the news media and the Obama campaign despite being the best-qualified candidate.
As they look ahead to the general election, many women say they will vote for Obama, but others remain hesitant about supporting a Democratic nominee with limited national experience. Some say they won't vote, and, according to a recent CNN poll, about one in six back Republican Sen. John McCain.
"It's too sad. It's been so horrible what's been done to her," said Natalie Waugh, 64, a retiree from Falls Church, Va., her eyes welling with tears as she described the end of a Clinton candidacy.
"It's a combination of being a Clinton and being a woman," Waugh said. "They could call her anything. They could call her an emasculator, a murderer, and it's accepted."
Waugh said that she would vote for Obama only if he showed respect and appreciation for Clinton going forward. If not, "I'll either not vote or write her [name] in."
Clinton voters will be studying Obama's words and actions. If he chooses Clinton as a running mate, many of her supporters say that they would enthusiastically back the ticket. They also want him to embrace her signature issues, such as making universal health care a priority.
Women voters are a huge voting bloc, one that Clinton carried in the Democratic primaries. She appealed to them directly in her speech, saying, "To build that future I see, we must make sure that women and men alike understand the struggles of their grandmothers and their mothers, and that women enjoy equal opportunities, equal pay and equal respect."
But for Obama, overt appeals to women carry risks, said Shawn Parry-Giles, a communications professor at the University of Maryland who has studied news media treatment of Clinton.
Republicans will try to exploit perceived weaknesses if Obama stresses issues important to women or tries a softer message, she said. "Republicans always try to feminize Democrats," Parry-Giles said
Effie Laman, a Texas Tech University education professor who attended Clinton's speech, said that Obama lacks the experience needed to be president and that she is not enthusiastic about voting for him. She knows of friends who backed Clinton in the primary who now plan to support McCain, including some who believe Obama "is using his African-American heritage" for political advantage. But Laman won't vote for McCain. "It will be very difficult, but I will vote for the Democratic Party," she said.
Donna Richbourg, 59, a retired Department of Defense employee from Potomac, arrived at the museum yesterday feeling a mixture of sadness and anger, particularly at the news media.
"I think there was tremendous sexism" in coverage of the Clinton campaign, particularly on cable television outlets such as MSNBC, she said. "I think there is more sexism in our country than racism."
A Republican who switched parties to vote in the Maryland primary, Richbourg became a Clinton supporter after attending speeches by each candidate. "Hillary Clinton won me over with her knowledge and her poise," Richbourg said.
As she looks ahead to the general election, Richbourg is concerned about Obama's judgment and past association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. But she is also troubled by McCain's stand on the Iraq war, and the probable conservative bent of Supreme Court nominees.
"Right now, I don't think I can vote for either one," she said. "I need a cooling-off period."
Barbara Lieb, 71, called herself "demoralized, as an older woman," and doesn't see another viable female presidential candidate on the horizon.
"I think Hillary is the best thing we've had," said Lieb, a retired Department of Education employee from Arlington, Va. "She's been to 80 countries. She certainly understands the working class. Unions voted for her. It's not easy for someone to come along with that unique experience."
Obama, she said, is not ready for the presidency, and she doesn't know how she'll vote in the fall.
Female voters who are now ambivalent could readily be swayed, predicted April Williamson, 61, an American Civil Liberties Union accountant from Seattle. "I think Obama is such a good organizer, he is going to bring them over," Williamson said.
Her friend, Theresa Ogle, 57, agreed. Ogle, a consultant from Seattle, badly wants to see a woman president and marched in Washington for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, but will readily vote for Obama. "I'm practical," she said. "I want logical policy that I can understand."
Cathy Landau-Painter, 46, a government affairs specialist with KPMG, said she left Clinton's speech feeling better about Obama. "He's not my candidate," she acknowledged, but quickly added that "they're more aligned than not."
That, too, was a central point Clinton tried to impart yesterday.