- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has lengthened her lead over rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination and improved her likability ratings, but party officials and strategists say national polls this early in the race are nearly meaningless.

Last month, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was breathing down Mrs. Clinton’s neck — running just five points behind her — and polls showed negative opinions of the New York Democrat at 52 percent.

But last week the Gallup Poll reported Mrs. Clinton had increased her lead over Mr. Obama among Democrats by 15 points, with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in a distant third place. At the same time, her favorable ratings among Americans inched up to 50 percent, though that was still down from 58 percent in February.

However, Democratic Party officials and campaign advisers dismissed national poll numbers at this point as premature. Some said the numbers that ultimately matter are the poll ratings in the first caucus and primary contests in January.

“Outside of the first four or five contests, no one is really paying any attention. It’s like trying to read a Ouija board,” said Joe Trippi, who ran former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid and is now a key adviser to the Edwards campaign.

According to the Real Clear Politics Web site, which tracks presidential polls daily, Mrs. Clinton leads in the national Democratic preference voter surveys by an average of 11.4 percent.

But in some of the key early caucus and primary states, the race is much tighter and thus more vulnerable to upsets, state Democratic officials said.

For example, in Iowa — which holds its caucuses Jan. 14 — Mr. Edwards has consistently led the presidential pack for months by anywhere from two to seven points. But a more recent Research 2000 poll completed May 16 showed Mrs. Clinton edging ahead of him by two points, with Mr. Obama close behind.

The Democratic race appears just as tight in the first Southern primary in South Carolina — set for Jan. 29 — where Mrs. Clinton has led by an average of 4.5 percent in voter surveys. But a more recent poll by Insider Advantage of 500 registered voters, conducted May 8-9, showed Mr. Obama was leading her for the first time by a four-point margin.

Mrs. Clinton seemed to have little or no serious opposition in New Hampshire, where she has led her rivals by a 12-point average for several months, until a Zogby poll on May 14-15 showed she and Mr. Obama in a statistical dead heat, with Mr. Edwards in third place.

“Anyone who thinks that any New Hampshire poll at this time will accurately predict the New Hampshire primary, prior to the day voters cast their ballots, is not someone who has participated in a New Hampshire primary before,” Democratic Party state Chairman Ray Buckley told The Washington Times.

The Clinton campaign Friday said it wasn’t complaining about where the former first lady was in the latest polls.

“Clearly, there has been a rise in many of the polls for Senator Clinton since the debate. We are gratified by the encouraging results, but are taking nothing for granted and working hard for every vote,” Clinton spokesman Blake Zeff said.

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