EDMOND, Okla. — In her quest to become Oklahoma's first female governor, Democrat Jari Askins has amassed an assortment of professional qualifications: she's been a judge, a legislator, the head of a state agency, and a corporate attorney.
But what she hasn't been is a wife. The 57-year-old career woman, who now serves as the state's lieutenant governor, has never been married or had children. And as this historic race between two women candidates for the state's top office nears its conclusion, that gap in her biography is attracting increasing attention.
At rallies and other appearances, opponent Rep. Mary Fallin, 55, a Republican congressman, regularly mentions her new husband and their combined six children. Fallin, who had two children from a previous marriage, married a divorced father of four in November. She says her family and her experience as a businesswoman and officeholder have made her most qualified to be governor.
But remarks by Fallin at a Tuesday campaign debate, in which she cited her motherhood as a key difference between the two candidates, drew groans from some in the audience and stirred discussion about whether the emphasis on Askins' unmarried status had gone too far.
Several other women in public life, including Republicans, objected. "I don't understand why that's important," said Brenda Reneau, a Republican and former state labor commissioner, questioning why a candidate's husband and children were worth stressing in a gubernatorial debate. "Is she going to bring them to work? I've never found one thing while I was in office that I needed experience in being married and having children."
State Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre, one of 17 women serving in Oklahoma's legislature, also said Fallin's comment seemed like a "cheap shot." McIntyre, a Democrat, said Askins' unmarried status "doesn't have anything to do with anything."
Fallin supporters insisted the contrast was appropriate. "How can you not talk about family?" said Tulsa banker Charlotte Mindeman.
But the awkward moment has stirred questions about gender and politics in a race that has been regarded as a feminist milestone here. Would calling attention to a woman's lack of spouse pay off in a conservative state where politicians campaign on family values? Or does no-holds-barred campaigning show how far women have progressed in a male-dominated arena?
Laura Boyd, who was the state's first female gubernatorial nominee when she ran in 1998, said she hopes voters will focus on other issues. "Oklahoma woman are beyond, and should be beyond that, by virtue of the fact we have this opportunity for a female chief executive," said Boyd, a Democrat.
But one voter, Shana Goodman, a Norman salon owner and a single mother, said she thinks it is important to know whether a candidate has raised a family. "Because I think when you are actively involved in raising children, it shows you know how to sacrifice yourself for the well being of others," she said.
Fallin and Askins are both powerhouses in Oklahoma politics. Askins, the daughter of an abstract company owner from Duncan, worked as an oil and gas attorney before making her way up through the state's political ranks. She became director of the state pardon and parole board before winning election to the legislature. Gregarious and quick with a hug for colleagues and prospective voters, she built a reputation as a consensus builder in a politically divided state House.
Fallin's parents both served terms as mayor of her hometown of Tecumseh. She was manager of a hotel chain when, she said, she grew frustrated with government regulation and ran for the legislature. She was later elected lieutenant governor and U.S. representative. She still favors the formal business suits and firm manner of a business executive.
The two women initially appeared cordial on the campaign trail, and both boasted of their strong conservative credentials. But Askins, trailing in the race, took a more aggressive posture after television ads sponsored by the Republican Governors Association began blasting her as a liberal and associating her with President Barack Obama.
At the first televised debate last week in Edmond, Askins at one point suggested Fallin was a "show horse," rather than a workhorse, provoking a reaction.
And, when asked at the debate what defines her as a candidate and distinguishes her from opponent, Fallin responded: "I think my experience is one of the things that sets me apart as a candidate for governor. First of all, being a mother, having children, raising a family."
Afterward, Fallin said she saw nothing wrong with her remark. "I was just explaining that these things give me a good perspective on the challenges Oklahomans face, and hopefully voters can relate to that," she said.
Askins declined to say if she felt Fallin's comment suggested she lacked an important credential for a woman. She said she never planned on being single.
"I always expected to be married and have a passel full of kids," Askins said. "But none of that ever happened. Rather than sit back and worry about it, I devoted my life to trying to serve all the children of Oklahoma."
Although women officeholders are becoming more common across the nation, their marital status still sometimes draws attention. Both of President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, occasionally were asked about never marrying or having children. Janet Napolitano, who has never married, was elected governor of Arizona and is now Homeland Security secretary.
For her part, Askins says she hasn't committed herself to being single forever.
"I'm still hoping that when I get married, he has better football tickets than I do and he likes to play golf," she said.