Pack closing on Hillary in early states

The race between Democratic presidential front-runners in the early state contests has tightened in the past month, defying national polls that show Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton with a sizable lead.

Despite the New York senator’s substantial lead in nationwide surveys, pollsters and Democratic strategists say the race between the former first lady and her strongest rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, has grown much more competitive in New Hampshire. A recent poll in the state, which holds the first primary, shows the two in a dead heat.

Democratic campaign advisers in the state, which has a history of upsetting front-runners, say Mr. Obama’s support has widened, especially among independents.

Supporters of Mr. Obama in the Granite State say the narrowing race is due in part to voter reaction to Mrs. Clinton’s latest attack on Mr. Obama.

In an interview with the Quad-City Times in Iowa, she called Mr. Obama “irresponsible and frankly naive” for saying during the Democratic debate in South Carolina that he would be willing to meet with hostile world leaders such as the president of North Korea.

“There is clearly a tightening there. The national numbers are based on name recognition and on media coverage. The primary process is very much a sequential [state-by-state] process,” independent pollster John Zogby said.

“This process is wide open, absolutely. Hillary is the national front-runner, but she is not the front-runner in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,” three of the early contests that will take place in January, Mr. Zogby said.

A five-day American Research Group (ARG) poll of 600 likely New Hampshire Democratic voters conducted the last week in July showed Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama tied with 31 percent each.

Mr. Zogby said his polls in the state earlier this year had shown the race close, while succeeding surveys by other organizations showed Mrs. Clinton moving into a substantial lead.

However, a Mason-Dixon poll in June, which showed her drawing 26 percent to Mr. Obama’s 21 percent among likely Democratic voters, moved the Illinois senator to within striking range of overtaking Mrs. Clinton in the pivotal primary state.

“I think a lot of voters started seeing a very big difference between Hillary and Barack Obama on the issue of negotiating with other countries. I don’t think voters like nasty and sarcastic exchanges between the candidates, and she needs to be careful that she isn’t perceived in a way that seems sarcastic,” said Obama campaign adviser Jim Demers, a longtime party strategist in the state.

“This really has gotten the voters’ attention,” he said. “There is definitely movement toward Obama. I think they recognize he is the candidate of change, and Hillary comes across as the traditional establishment candidate.”

The Clinton campaign did not respond to three requests yesterday for a comment on Mr. Demers’ remarks.

But pollsters such as Mr. Zogby said they agreed with Mr. Demers’ characterization of the two front-runners.

“I think this is precisely what is going on. She has been running a general election campaign, trying to position herself as the establishment candidate with experience,” Mr. Zogby said. “Obama is by definition the anti-establishment change candidate.”

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