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.
"There are three things that we've seen in past primary elections here. New Hampshire voters don't like front-runners, they don't like establishment candidates, and they don't like the out-of-town pundits telling us who is going to win the primary.
"Most voters haven't decided, so nobody should take the latest polling numbers to the bank on how New Hampshire would vote," he said.
What Democratic insiders are closely watching right now is any sign that Clinton is in danger of falling behind in Iowa and thus stumbling -- as Howard Dean did in 2004 -- just before the pivotal New Hampshire primary.
"You can't say (the nomination is) locked down. We are four lifetimes away from the first ballots being cast by caucus-goers showing up on a cold winter night in Iowa," said Democrat Bud Jackson, a campaign media consultant who is not working for any of his party's contenders.
"She has run a flawless campaign and so far hasn't had any major scandals. But if she stumbles in Iowa, anything can happen," Jackson said.
What could undermine her campaign? Jackson points to troubling news stories last month in the Los Angeles Times that found large donors to the Clinton campaign from New York's Chinese-American community who have no known address and little income.
"Should she slip up, it would remind people of the negative aspects that have historically surrounded her, and her electability would then come into question," Jackson told me.
Until now, Clinton has had an easy ride in the pre-primary season, with her closest rival, Obama, avoiding any direct attacks on her candidacy. But that period has ended, and he has begun to take the gloves off. His polling numbers are inching up in Iowa, and he has begun running TV ads in New Hampshire in the past few weeks that have gotten much more aggressive on Clinton's record.
In sports, they say, "It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings." Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination may look like a sure thing now. But it isn't over until she shows she can survive the offensive that is shaping up against her in Iowa and New Hampshire.
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