NEW ALBANY, IND. — Debra Starks has heard the calls for Hillary Rodham Clinton to quit the presidential race, and she's not happy about it.
The 53-year old Wal-Mart clerk, so bedecked with Clinton campaign buttons most days that friends call her "Button Lady," thinks sexism is playing a role in efforts to push the New York senator from the race. Starks wants Clinton to push back.
"The way I look at it, she's a strong woman and she needs to stay in there. She needs to fight," Starks said at a Clinton campaign rally. "If you want to be president, you have to fight for what you want. If she stays in there and does what she's supposed to do, I think she'll be on her way."
Amid mounting calls from top Democrats for Clinton to step aside and clear the path for rival Barack Obama, strategists are warning of damage to the party's chances in November if women - who make up the majority of Democratic voters nationwide, but especially the older, white working-class women who've long formed the former first lady's base - sense a mostly male party establishment is unfairly muscling Clinton out of the race.
"Women will indeed be upset if it appears people are trying to push Hillary Clinton out of the way," said Carol Fowler, the South Carolina Democratic Party chair who is backing Obama. "If you are going to ask her to withdraw, you'd better be making a strong case for it - both to the candidate and the public."
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy last week became the first leading Democrat to openly call on Clinton to abandon her bid and back Obama, a sentiment shared by many activists worried that a drawn-out nominating contest only bolsters Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain.
To be sure, Clinton campaign officials concede her path to winning the nomination is not at all clear. But they think many superdelegates remain at least persuadable, due in no small part to the influence of women voters on the party and in the general election.
"My e-mail is bursting with women who are furious, and it's grown in the last week," said Ann Lewis, Clinton's director of women's outreach and a longtime Democratic activist.