Forget the “lesser-of-the-evils” talk typically heard from Democratic primary voters around this time of a presidential campaign. Interviews with dozens of Democrats here and across the country this Labor Day weekend found them enthusiastic about their presidential choices and, if slightly nervous about potential weaknesses in their candidates, confident of victory in 2008.
“I think Hillary is pretty strong,” said Lesley Cain, a dentist, as she sat out in the afternoon sun on Market Square in Portsmouth, N.H., waiting for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton to arrive for a Labor Day rally. “But I think Obama is good, too. It’s a flip at this point.”
Carol Brackett, 51, a retired dental technician from Portland, Me., said: “I love the field of Democrats. This is going to be hard.”
These expressions of satisfaction from members of a party better known for quadrennial rites of grumbling do not mean that primary voters do not have some qualms about their leading candidates after months of getting to know them. Especially in the early voting states, like New Hampshire and Iowa, but also in other parts of the country where voters were asked over the last few days about their impressions as the campaign barrels toward the first primaries early next year, Democratic voters said that they were pleased to be able to select among Mrs. Clinton, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and the rest of the party’s candidates, but that they also continued to have questions about them.
Again and again, voters — often unprompted — said they were concerned that Mr. Obama did not have enough experience.
“Not this year — he’s not ready,” said Karen Smith, 63, who works for a medical technologies firm in Portsmouth, and who said she was leaning toward Mrs. Clinton. “But he’ll be back.”
Some expressed concern that Mrs. Clinton, as a general-election candidate, would be hurt by voter animosity that has accumulated over the years. “Hillary has the baggage from the Bill years, and all the various scandals they have been through,” said Ken Purington, 50, of Rollinsford, N.H.
And Mr. Edwards, who campaigned across New Hampshire last week, was rarely named by voters when they were asked who they were considering, suggesting the difficulty he continues to face in his second bid for the presidency against two better-known candidates running for the first time.
“He is too much of the same old thing: it is time for something different,” Emily Vance, a 22-year-old writer, said in a break from reading the newspapers at a gallery in Jacksonville, Fla.
Still, this is a confident party this fall. In one sign of this, voters said they believed either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama could win the presidency back from the Republicans.
“I think she could be a good president and she could win,” said Sharon Black, an undecided Democrat from Des Moines, who turned out to hear Mrs. Clinton speak at a labor rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Monday. “She could be a really strong, passionate Democratic candidate, and that’s a person who could win in 2008.”
The responses suggest a marked shift in mood for Democrats over the past year. There was no talk this weekend of Al Gore, the former vice president, or any other Democrat, coming to the rescue of the party. The findings were also another indication that Democratic voters appear as energized about this election as Republican voters are subdued, though that could change once the Republicans rally around a candidate and if Mrs. Clinton is nominated and turns out to be as polarizing a candidate as Republicans are hoping.
Although several Democrats said they were concerned that the presence of Mr. Clinton during the campaign could prove a negative for Mrs. Clinton in a general election, he was often the reason cited by Democrats who said they thought Mrs. Clinton would be a strong president during a difficult time.
“Her husband was a very good diplomat for the United States, and he is well respected,” said Jan Archambault, 49, a psychiatric nurse from Rollinsford, N.H. “So it’s getting two for the price of one.”
The interviews suggest that Mrs. Clinton has made progress in her effort to present herself as the most qualified of the candidates. “Of all the fish swimming around in that pond, I think she has the most gray matter between the ears,” said Mark Schwartz, 53, of Hampton, N.H., who builds resource recovery plants.
Ron Mirsky, a hair stylist from Exeter, N.H., who said he voted for Mr. Edwards in 2004, said he was likely to support Mrs. Clinton now because of the threat of terrorism and the war in Iraq. “Our country is in a real tough time right now, and she’s the one that can pull it together, because she has the experience,” Mr. Mirsky said. “She’ll make the most balanced decisions.”
Some voters expressed concern that that might cut both ways and hurt Mrs. Clinton in a general election. “I hope she’s able to win more people over,” said Mrs. Brackett, the retired dental technician from Maine. “She’s not really warm and fuzzy, so some people are put off by that and threatened by her brilliance.”
But Reema Zoumut, an art teacher in Corona, Calif., said: “She went through some trials and tribulations. She, to me, looks good.”
Mr. Obama has made a strong and favorable impression on voters, but appears not to have erased the concern — fanned by Mrs. Clinton’s campaign with its emphasis on experience — that he might not be ready to be president. A number of voters said they wished Mr. Obama had waited to run and suggested he would be a much stronger candidate in four or eight years.
“I like him a lot — he’s very charismatic, he’s very positive,” said Melinda Fountain of La Porte, Ind. “But he’s a one-term senator. How much time has he really had to prove himself?”
In Manchester on Monday, Mr. Obama gave a speech in which he sought to emphasize his outside-of-Washington experience, in what appeared to be a new tactic designed to deal with the concern. Even some of Mr. Obama’s supporters who attended the speech said his relatively little time in Washington could prove a detriment in a general election.
“Will he win this time?” asked Chris Mattise, a 56-year-old school counselor from Amherst, N.H. “It’s going to be an uphill struggle.”
Democrats expressed some admiration for Mr. Edwards — but offered concern that he had decided to push ahead with a presidential campaign after learning that his wife, Elizabeth, had suffered a recurrence of cancer and that it was not treatable.
“Edwards is a good man,” Mr. Schwartz said. “I think he has way too much on his plate to deal with the pressures that are confronting our country now.”
Democrats said that ending the war was their top priority, though there was no sign that Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards were gaining an edge on the issue over Mrs. Clinton by noting that she had originally voted for the authorization allowing the war.
“With more information, you become more informed, you change your position,” said Barbara Wilson, an employer trainer from Maine, who said “the war has to stop — the war has to stop now.”
Reporting was contributed by Dan Frosch in Denver; Patrick Healy in Des Moines; Michael Parrish in Riverside, Calif.; Marc Santora in Jacksonville, Fla.; and Jeff Zeleny in Manchester and Portsmouth, N.H.