NEW YORK • With the United States on the verge of a presidential election between a trailblazing woman and an opponent accused of misogyny, Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump are digging in for a general election campaign in which he is likely to attack her again and again precisely because she is a woman.
Mr Trump, the Republican favourite, has already proved willing to attack Mrs Clinton in ways that many women find sexist and that her supporters consider out of bounds.
This week alone, he accused her of playing the "woman's card" to get where she is, saying: "If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 per cent of the vote."
He questioned her "strength" and "stamina", and mocked her for "shouting". Also this year, he attacked her as the enabling political spouse of a former president who Mr Trump said had abused women.
Mrs Clinton's advisers say they are confident that such comments will galvanise Democrats - and infuriate nearly any woman who has ever had to work harder than a man. But they also recognise that Mr Trump has proved adept at reading the electorate and at dominating news coverage - and that Mrs Clinton must parry his attacks without overplaying her hand or further eroding her standing with male voters, whom she has struggled to win over in the Democratic primary.
Mr Trump's advisers, meanwhile, say the woman's card attack serves to undermine Mrs Clinton by sowing doubts about her qualifications - not just with men, but with white women, who have supported the Republican nominee in every election since 1996 and are vital to Mr Trump's chances in November.
Democrats say the strategy is an exercise in delusion, given Mr Trump's weakness among women: Fifty per cent of white women said they would support Mrs Clinton, compared to 39 per cent for Mr Trump, according to a CBS News poll this month.
But even some Republican political operatives fiercely opposed to Mr Trump say he is pursuing what could be a sound strategy by turning Mrs Clinton's chance to make history against her while deflecting scrutiny of his own weakness among female voters.
"By taking gender head-on, Trump refuses to cede women voters and so-called women's issues to Hillary just because she is a woman," said Ms Kellyanne Conway, a pollster who heads a super PAC supporting Senator Ted Cruz.
"This can't be a tit-for-tat on comedic insults," said Ms Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist. But, she added, without the right pushback, Mr Trump's attacks "could have a corrosive impact, and that's what the campaign is thinking hard about".
NEW YORK TIMES
US election 2016 - More stories here: http://str.sg/Zjyq