Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination tightened significantly yesterday in New Hampshire, where an independent statewide poll showed Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards in a statistical dead heat, with Barack Obama close behind.

The Granite State Poll, conducted March 27 to April 2 by the University of New Hampshire for CNN and WMUR-TV, found that the New York senator’s support among likely Democratic voters had dropped to 27 percent, down from 35 percent in February.

Mr. Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina and the party’s 2004 vice presidential nominee, jumped to 21 percent, up from 16 percent, followed closely by Mr. Obama, the freshman senator from Illinois, with 20 percent.

With the survey’s sampling error of 5.3 percentage points, pollsters said that Mrs. Clinton’s narrow six-point lead in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary put her in a statistical tie with Mr. Edwards. Everyone else in the field of candidates was in the low single digits.

Another poll released yesterday by independent pollster John Zogby reported slightly differing numbers that showed Mrs. Clinton leading by 29 percent, narrowly ahead of her two chief rivals, who were tied in second place with 23 percent each.

“This is truly turning into a major three-way race for the party’s nomination,” said Mr. Zogby, adding that his numbers showed “that all three candidates are likely to have significant staying power, and this is going to be a real dogfight.”

But Democratic officials in New Hampshire said they were not as surprised by the narrowing gaps among the top three contenders, sensing for some weeks that the race was getting closer and that Mrs. Clinton’s front-runner status had suffered some erosion among voters, especially among independents.

“This race is tightening, and it’s up for grabs now,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley told The Washington Times yesterday.

“No one should be counted out right now,” he said of the top-tier candidates.

Still, Mrs. Clinton remained the clear front-runner throughout the country, according to the Real Clear Politics Web site, which monitors the major presidential candidate polls. It showed yesterday that the former first lady led her rivals by an average of 10.7 percentage points among the polls it tracks.

Mr. Obama’s announcement yesterday that he had raised $25 million for his campaign in the first three months of this year — nearly as much as Mrs. Clinton’s $26 million — only added to the perception that the New Hampshire primary, known for upsetting front-runners, could do so once again.

“Hillary’s support is one layer of a rock-hard base covered by layers of shifting sand. The big question that looms is how much lower can Hillary’s numbers go before they bottom out at her level of rock-hard support?” said Democratic campaign strategist Bud Jackson.

Mrs. Clinton’s favorability numbers also fell among the 339 likely Democratic voters surveyed — from 74 percent in February to 64 percent in this month’s survey — while her unfavorables rose from 15 percent to 24 percent, the Granite State Poll said.

Mr. Zogby said her strongest support in his poll came from self-identified Democrats, with 36 percent saying they would vote for her, compared with 22 percent for Mr. Obama and 15 percent for Mr. Edwards.

Mr. Edwards was stronger among independent voters who planned to vote in the Democratic primary, giving him 33 percent support, compared to 26 percent for Mr. Obama and 19 percent for Mrs. Clinton.

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