Sunday, March 11, 2007

Talk among Democrats that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton could end up losing the Democratic presidential nomination is increasing because of growing doubts about her electability, fueled by her declining poll numbers.

At the start of the two-year election cycle, few Democratic campaign strategists — except those among her rivals — were willing to even entertain the notion that the influential New York Democrat could stumble and lose her front-runner status. But that reluctance has given way to an increasing belief in the party that she has become much more vulnerable.

“Yeah, I think she can lose the nomination,” said David Sirota, a Democratic campaign strategist who says Mrs. Clinton is in danger of being surpassed by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and, possibly, by former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in key caucuses and primaries.

Mr. Obama trailed her by eight points among Democratic voters nationwide in a NBC/Wall Street Journal party-preference survey last week, and by three points in an American Research Group poll of likely Democratic primary voters. Mr. Edwards continues to show strength in the early caucus states of Iowa and Nevada.

“If I were her, I’d worry about the Iraq war and working-class economic issues. If she’s got Obama hitting her on the war and Edwards hitting her on both the war and economic-populist issues, that could hurt her,” Mr. Sirota said.

Other Democrats are similarly questioning Mrs. Clinton’s political viability over the next 10 months, after her decline in Democratic voter opinion polls, although some are unwilling to say so publicly.

“To go from 43 percent in January to 34 percent Democratic support in February this early in the nominating cycle is a sign of serious weakness for a front-runner that is feeding doubts about her at our party’s grass roots,” said a Democratic press adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

And it isn’t just Democratic strategists talking. Political pollsters are also picking up signals that her eroding electability is becoming a troubling issue within the party.

A Gallup poll reported last week that “Americans are closely divided in their view of whether Clinton or Obama has the better chance of being elected, with 50 percent choosing Clinton and 45 percent choosing Obama.”

Significantly, Gallup discovered that independent voters — the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s electorate — were “split down the middle” between the two major rivals when asked to appraise their electability.

Mrs. Clinton was trailing Republican front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani by an average of 5 percentage points in all the major matchup polls of the past two weeks.

Last week, some Democratic strategists said that a critical factor contributing to Mrs. Clinton’s decline in the polls has been her unwillingness to apologize for her vote for the Iraq war resolution and admit that it was a mistake in judgment. Her steadfast refusal to call for a troop-pullout deadline also has hurt her among the party’s anti-war activists.

“Her Iraq war vote is coming back to haunt her. She’s said everything except that she made a mistake. Edwards said he made a mistake,” said press election pollster Del Ali of Research 2000.

She was also hurt last month when Hollywood movie mogul David Geffen, a former Clinton ally and contributor who supports Mr. Obama, attacked her character and questioned her electability.

Mr. Sirota says Mr. Obama specifically poses a danger to Mrs. Clinton because he presents himself as something new and because he’s an outsider candidate who is a party insider.

“Hillary’s problem is that her presidential campaign is not about anything but Hillary,” he said.

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