11/02/2007 09:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clinton and the Philly Debate: Calling a "Foul"

Most of the time being the one and only woman in the presidential race means continually untangling yourself from the double binds of gender: Demands that she be tough and feminine, insider and outsider, etc. But every now and then, with a smart campaign staff, a woman can turn being the only woman into an advantage, and a slip into a base run. That's just what happened after the last debate.

When Clinton's performance slipped during Tuesday's debate in Philly her advisers called "foul": think Republican Rick Lazio.

In that campaign, Lazio vowed to be tough on candidate Clinton and during a debate, he left his podium and walked over and tried to get her to sign a pledge. What was meant to be a classic candidate debate stunt -- getting your opponent to engage in a "gentleman's" agreement to not do X or Y -- became an instant lesson in gender politics for Lazio, as he became viewed by women voters as menacing and by male voters as simply boorish.

Realizing that their candidate stumbled, her campaign advisers deflected by calling the performance of her opponents as one of "piling on" (something illegal in football and that men abhor) and pointing out that it is Hillary against "six men." Not to mention that the moderators, Tim Russert and Brian Williams as well and may very well have been bullying her with their line of questioning.

Because Clinton herself didn't turn victim, the overall effect is to position Clinton as strong to male voters and between the lines, as being bullied by her male counterparts, to female voters, who never like to see a women being picked on. Even though she is the frontrunner and is likely being subjected to classic frontrunner attacks, Clinton was able to make what has been a continuing challenge: gender and use it to her own effect.

The overall effect will be just what happened with Lazio...providing some inoculation from such attacks during the campaign.