In a little more than a year, Democrats will gather in Denver to nominate their presidential candidate for the 2008 White House race. Conventional wisdom has been that the nominating contest is wide open, it's still "too soon to tell" who the party will rally behind next year, and Democrats are notoriously fickle anyway. But national polls paint a different picture: Hillary Rodham Clinton is increasingly looking like the undisputed front-runner.
The New York senator has a 20-point lead over second-place Barack Obama among registered Democrats responding to the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. Her edge over Obama rose an impressive 8 points after the Illinois senator appeared to be gaining on her earlier this summer.
But Clinton's steady lead in primary matchup polling has been well established. What's perhaps more telling is another CNN/ORC release from the same poll showing Clinton head and shoulders above Obama and third-place contender John Edwards on a number of key indicators. The results suggest Clinton's strategy of keeping one eye on the primary and another on the general may be appealing to primary voters hungry for a Democratic win after eight years of GOP rule.
A strong 55-percent majority of registered Democrats named Clinton the most likely to beat the Republican nominee in next year's election, and a whopping 72 percent said that, if nominated, she could beat the GOP nominee next year. Perhaps less surprising were the nearly six in 10 respondents who said Clinton had the "right experience to be president." On that measure, one-term former Sen. Edwards and first-term Sen. Obama were named by only 11 percent and 9 percent of Democratic respondents, respectively.
Aware of the hurdles facing the first formidable woman candidate for president, Team Clinton has worked hard to position the former first lady as a viable war-time president. Clinton's recent criticism of Obama on matters of foreign policy and defense may be paying off. Forty-six percent of Democrats named Clinton "the most qualified to be commander in chief" in the CNN/ORC poll, putting her far ahead of Obama and Edwards. Another 47 percent said she'd be the "strongest leader."
Perhaps most challenging for Obama is the poll's revelation that a plurality of Democrats see Clinton, not her fresh-faced competitors, as the "change" candidate in this election. Four in 10 said Clinton would "bring needed change" to the country, compared with 27 percent naming Obama.
But while things are looking up for Clinton on the national stage, she's still got a tough road ahead in early primary states. For example, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll [PDF] showed Clinton, Obama and Edwards locked in a dead heat in Iowa. Perhaps recognizing the stiff competition there, Clinton launched her first TV ad in Iowa this week, casting herself as a woman of the people who will listen to those who have been ignored under the Bush administration -- a variation of the "change" theme that she hopes will catch on there.
But Clinton is not without her weak spots, according to the CNN/ORC poll. She's seen as less likable than Obama (31 percent to 34 percent) and only slightly more honest. The question is, in a time of war and disillusionment with Washington, will Democratic voters want to nominate someone they like, or someone they respect?