WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton leads in the polls in the early contests of 2008, but party strategists warn that a large number of still-undecided independents and Democrats could hit her with a January surprise.
While the national news media concentrates on her poll leads in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida, very little attention is paid to those voters who say they haven't made up their mind. Some have not begun to focus on the election, while others have doubts about Clinton's electability.
Those doubts were heightened late last month in a poll of 9,718 likely general-election voters across the country by independent pollster John Zogby, who found 50 percent of them would never vote for Clinton under any circumstances.
Last week's latest party-preference polls showed the New York senator leading her chief rivals for the nomination by an average of 20 percent in New Hampshire, 13 percent in South Carolina, 27 percent in Florida, 18 percent in Nevada and 19 percent in Michigan.
Her narrowest lead was in Iowa, scene of the nation's first caucuses, where she has been virtually tied with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who now threatens to overtake her there. His escalating attacks on Clinton for her fuzziness on the issues, her vote for the Iraq-war resolution and, more recently, for an administration-backed resolution to toughen U.S. sanctions against Iran seems to have strengthened his bid in the key Midwestern state where antiwar sentiment is fierce.
His supporters say that more than 80 percent of the party's base in Iowa and in New Hampshire hasn't made up its mind.
Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden's campaign said its polls show that 60 percent of Iowa voters are not firmly committed to a candidate. A University of New Hampshire poll found that most Granite State Democrats were also mulling over their choices: 17 percent said they had definitely decided, but 28 percent said they were only leaning toward a candidate, and 55 percent said they were still trying to reach a decision.
"It is very much up in the air right now. A significant number of people have not made a final determination. The history of the New Hampshire primary is that the unexpected often happens here," state Democratic chairman Ray Buckley told me.
Jim Demers, a veteran Democratic operative in the state who is backing Obama, is similarly doubtful about Clinton's lead in the nation's first primary. "There's a huge block of independents here, and they tend to make up their minds late," Demers said. "I think the voters in New Hampshire are just starting to tune in.
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