By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 8/1/2007 6:33:24 PM ET 2007-08-01T22:33:24

With the first primary contests still more than five months away, front-runners Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani have widened their leads in the respective races for their party’s presidential nomination, according to the latest national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

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In the Democratic contest, Clinton, D-N.Y., leads Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., 43-22 percent, with former vice presidential nominee John Edwards coming in third at 13 percent. No other Democrat gets more than 6 percent in the poll.

Clinton's 21-point edge over Obama is a jump from her five-point lead in April (36-31 percent) and her 14-point advantage in June (39-25 percent). “Hillary has extended her lead,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.

Newhouse even compared Clinton to a Zamboni machine that’s sweeping over her opponents. “She is sweeping clean the table right now.”

“It’s not as much Barack declining as it is Hillary rising,” Hart adds. “Her campaign has had a magnificent seven months.”

In the Republican presidential contest, meanwhile, Giuliani leads former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., 33-20 percent — with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in third at 17 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in fourth at 11 percent.

Giuliani’s 13-point advantage over Thompson, who has not yet announced his candidacy, is an increase from June, when the former New York mayor had a 29-20 percent lead. “The GOP primary continues to float in suspended animation,” Hart says. “One doesn’t get the sense that much is happening.”

But there are warning signs for both front-runners in this poll, which was taken of 1,005 adults from July 27-30 and which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

For Clinton, it’s her relatively high negative ratings. In the survey, 44 percent view her positively versus 39 percent who see her in a negative light. By comparison, Obama has a 42-22 percent positive-negative rating.

Nevertheless, Clinton’s score in this poll is an improvement from June (when her rating was 42-42 percent) and March (when it was 39-43 percent).

Another potential problem for Clinton is her position on some of the issues, particularly among Democratic primary voters. In a June debate, for example, Clinton stated that the United States is safer than it was before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “I believe we are safer than we were,” she said. “We are not yet safe enough.”

Yet in the poll, just 27 percent of Democratic primary voters agree with that view. By comparison, 47 percent of them believe that the United States has become less safe since 9/11 — a position that Obama and Edwards share.

“Because of a war in Iraq that should never have been authorized and should never have been waged, we are now less safe than we were before 9/11,” Obama said in a speech on Wednesday. Among all respondents in the poll, 37 percent said the country is less safe since 9/11, 34 percent said it’s more safe and 27 percent said it’s about the same.

A warning sign for Giuliani is that he trails both Clinton and Obama in potential general election match-ups, even though his campaign bills him as the most electable Republican in the GOP presidential field. Clinton tops Giuliani in the poll, 47-41 percent, while Obama bests him, 45-40 percent.

Even in a three-candidate race — versus Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — Giuliani comes up short. Clinton gets 42 percent, Giuliani 34 percent and Bloomberg 11 percent.

This — not to mention plenty of other data — adds up to an edge for Democrats heading into the 2008 presidential election, says Hart, the Democratic pollster. “The Democrats have the advantage of the perfect environment for them.”

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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