"I'm not playing, as some people say, the gender card here in Las Vegas," Hillary Clinton asserted during the last Democratic debate. "I'm just trying to play the winning card."

Those two statements are consistent, not contradictory. Of course, she's playing the gender card. And she believes, with good reason, that gender is her key to victory. A lot of people are going to oppose her because she's a woman; so she has to maximize her support among voters who see her sex as an asset, not an obstacle.

In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, 18 percent said they were "very uncomfortable" with the idea of Clinton becoming "the first woman president"; another 8 percent had "some reservations," and not all the Hillary Haters are men by any means.

A well-dressed woman in Hilton Head, S.C., bluntly asked John McCain, "How do we beat the b-?" (rhymes with "witch"). McCain who knows better allowed the laughter to swell, and termed the inquiry an "excellent question," before expressing his "respect" for his Senate colleague.

This is all part of the famous "double bind" that faces any woman leader. If she's too feminine, she's not seen as "tough enough" to command troops or instill loyalty. If she's too forceful, the b-word comes spewing out, as it did in South Carolina.

But that's the world in which Clinton and every other powerful woman has to live. What's so intriguing about the Clinton campaign is that she's not running from the gender issue she's embracing it, and so far, her gamble seems to be paying off.

In that NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 69 percent said America was "ready to elect a qualified woman as president." We agree, and one reason is that voters now have plenty of models for what a "qualified woman" looks and sounds like.

She looks like two secretaries of state (Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice), the speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi), the most powerful jurist of her age (Sandra Day O'Connor) and the lead character in the TV drama "Commander in Chief" (Geena Davis, who played President Mackenzie Allen). She also looks like the president of Chile (Michelle Bachelet), the prime minister of Germany (Angela Merkel) and the opposition leaders in Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto) and Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi).

From the start, Team Clinton has calculated that a certain number of voters are not only "ready" to elect a "qualified woman" but are eager to do just that. In her announcement video, she sat on a living room couch and said casually, "Let's talk, let's chat," a phrase directly aimed at female supporters.

Two out of five voters dislike Clinton, and many say she's too calculating, manipulative and phony. But at least one quality about her is beyond question her gender. By stressing that fact, she touches a chord of authenticity, and her pitch to women has gotten stronger as the campaign has progressed.

In the same debate where she denied playing the "gender card," she repeated a favorite line, quoting Harry Truman about getting out of the kitchen if you can't stand the heat and adding, "I feel very comfortable in the kitchen, and I'm going to, you know, withstand the heat."

Leave aside the fact that she probably hasn't cooked a meal in 30 years; the kitchen line is aimed right at voters like Valerie Frederickson, a Silicon Valley, Calif., consultant who told the Wall Street Journal, "As professional women, we've been through so much I feel like she's my big sister."

Clinton adviser Mark Penn recently argued that an "emotional connection" will create a "tremendous influx" of women into the political process to back Hillary. He predicted that one out of four Republican women could "defect," and while that sounds high, the gender gap is certainly striking. Pitted against Rudy Giuliani in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, she leads by 15 points among women (and loses among men by the same margin).

Team Clinton is still figuring out the correct strategy. One of her advisers told us it was a "huge mistake" after she stumbled in a recent debate to start whining about the boys "piling on" the girl. She has to come across as strong, not weak, and confident, not complaining.

But her basic instinct is right. Many women do feel an "emotional connection" and want her to succeed in what she recently called "the all-boys club of presidential politics." Played shrewdly, the "gender card" can also be a "winning card."

Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.