CONSERVATIVE WOMEN AGREE: GENDER CARD OVERPLAYED.

Though its inconceivable that a group of female G.O.P. campaign operatives would have praised their arch-nemesis Hillary Clinton, the critiques of Clinton's recent "gender card" controversy that four women from different Republican campaigns offered at the National Review-sponsored panel discussion "Women Voters and the Right Guy" at the National Press Club this afternoon was nonetheless instructive, in that it mixed sympathy with a preview of how their bosses might run against her, should she win the Democratic nomination.

A question from Time's Ana Marie Cox about what's different for them as women working on campaigns had earlier led the women to temporarily lay down their talking points and slip into a more reflective mood, and most of the women, experienced campaign insiders that they are, chalked the controversy up to staffer error, rather than Clinton herself.

"I think the staff did it," offered Barbara Comstock, an adviser to former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney. "It was a disservice to her....It's silly."

Fred Thompson spokesperson Karen Hanretty agreed. "I kind of doubt that this was a decision that Hillary Clinton discussed with Mark Penn, and I think that probably if Mark Penn had been a woman, he wouldn't have said that," she said. "Either she's tough enough to take on the terrorists or she's not tough enough to take on Barack Obama."

"I think it was a disservice by her campaign," added John McCain national communications director Jill Hazelbaker, again pointing the blame away from the candidate, before offering a rare word of solidarity. "It's nice to see a credible female candidate in this election. But for her to try to have it both ways, I don't think it went very well for her...it's not credible."

"It was one of the more curious things that I've seen recently, which is saying something," added Rudy Giuliani communications director Katie Levinson. "A few weeks back she said one of the reasons to vote for her was becuase she had dealt with the Republican machine before." Her response on drivers' licenses was typical "Clintonese" and frustrating. And unlike in 2000, when Clinton used a similar response against opponent Rick Lazio, "I don't think that people will give her a pass this time," she said. "They expect the front-runner running for president to be able to have those discussions on issues."

"Tactically, the campaign probably made a mistake because I do think it was a disservice to her," Levinson continued. "She is an extraordinarily intelligent woman who should answer questions on a policy."

That said, the women also agreed that Clinton would probably be much more cautious about allowing her surrogates to use a similar approach in the future. "I think it backfired," said Hanretty. "I don't think they'll be doing it again."

--Garance Franke-Ruta

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