Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has consolidated her early lead in the Democratic presidential contest, showing steady strength as the candidates head toward the first voting early next year.
She has been challenged for fund-raising supremacy and news media attention by Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. Former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina beat her to the punch in introducing big policy proposals. But nothing that her main rivals have done has so far has derailed Mrs. Clinton, leading them to begin rolling out aggressive new strategies aimed primarily at her, including courting black voters in South Carolina and stepping up attacks.
She has maintained solid leads in most national polls. And while polls in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire are of limited value in predicting the outcome, they too show her more than holding her own entering the period in which primary voters begin to make up their minds.
“I think they’ve run a great campaign,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, said of Mrs. Clinton, of New York. “She’s been a very disciplined candidate. They’ve been deft in trying to get ahead of this tidal wave of people out there who really want change. They are doing the best they can with it.”
But Mr. Axelrod, pointing to what he saw as Mrs. Clinton’s foremost vulnerability, said: “The question is ultimately, Is she credible — whether people buy her as an agent of change in Washington. If they do, she’ll do well.”
A senior adviser to Mr. Edwards, Joe Trippi, said: “You used to be able to say the front-runners — her and Obama — but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. It’s pretty clear that she has sort of pulled away.”
Mr. Obama is moving to deal directly with what his advisers said continued to be his weaker flank — concerns about his experience — with a burst of television advertisements that began this week in Iowa and will continue next week in New Hampshire. Mr. Edwards, trying to shake things up in a race where most of the attention has been focused on Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, has started what aides say will be an escalating series of attacks on Mrs. Clinton.
Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards face tough decisions in the weeks ahead.
They see the same path to victory — which includes turning the contest into a two-person race with Mrs. Clinton — but are concerned that attacks on one another would only end up helping her.
Mr. Obama’s decision to address the experience issue so directly came despite the concern of some associates about inviting new attention to a weakness. And Mr. Edwards’s decision to tackle Mrs. Clinton could have the unintended effect of helping Mr. Obama in states like Iowa, where caucus voters often recoil at the sight of two-candidate spats.
There is almost daily evidence that the Democratic presidential campaign has moved into a lively new phase in which campaigns are not passing up any opportunities to win over voters.
Mr. Obama’s aides are organizing black hair salon owners in South Carolina, a deep-seated social network that advisers said would be critical to pushing a historic black turnout that Mr. Obama hopes can deliver him victory there. In Iowa, the Obama campaign is signing up high school students who will be old enough to vote in the general election and can participate in caucuses.
Mrs. Clinton, after winning a burst of attention by rolling out a detailed health care plan this week, is planning similar speeches in the weeks ahead on education and energy. Mr. Edwards, who campaigned in all 99 Iowa counties in 2004, hit his 76th county on Friday as he made his way across the state to see if the people who supported him in 2004 were still with him.
The three leading contenders have also adopted decidedly different views of how the race will play out. Mrs. Clinton’s advisers argued that it would probably end on Feb. 5 when about 20 states vote. Though only 50 percent of the delegates will be selected by that day, the Clinton advisers suggested that one candidate would be so far ahead that there would be huge pressure on the other Democrats to rally around the leader.
Mr. Obama has begun preparing for a much more protracted campaign, arguing that it will be in effect a hunt for delegates that could last well into the spring. To that end, he is competing in some unlikely places — New York, for example, where he is holding a rally in Washington Square Park on Thursday — because under Democratic rules, delegates are allocated to candidates based on the percentage of votes they win.
And Mr. Edwards is looking for a victory in Iowa to bounce him to victory in New Hampshire, drawing a shot of attention and contributions that his aides argued would allow him to sweep through the Feb. 5 states.
But if there is one dominant sentiment in the Obama and Edwards camps these days, it is concern that Mrs. Clinton continues to do so well. On Friday, Mr. Obama released a television advertisement in which he talked about the lessons he learned about health care from the death of his mother, the kind of emotional personal anecdote that candidates normally hold back until the end.
Though these three candidates have dominated the race, there are signs that Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico has made inroads. Other candidates — in particular, Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut — are seen as far less likely to win any primaries. But they could affect the tone of the race based on the issues they press and if they choose to try to take on one of the leading candidates.
Although polls at this point in a campaign are notoriously unpredictable, the fact that Mrs. Clinton is leading in many of them is clearly influencing the way candidates, and the news media, view the race. And Mrs. Clinton is trying to use her standing to overcome a perceived obstacle: that she is tarnished by her White House years and cannot win a general election.
These same polls stirred some concern among Mr. Obama’s supporters that he has not yet capitalized on the early excitement that surrounded his campaign.
“It would have been nice if he had taken the lead during the summer and increased the lead going into the fall, but in realistic terms, this is as good as it can get,” said Tom Miller, the Iowa attorney general, who is a supporter of Mr. Obama. He added, “The key was to get the burst, stabilize it and make a run in the end.”
Mr. Axelrod said that Mr. Obama’s campaign had made a deliberate decision to hold off the bulk of its advertising money until now, when more people are paying attention, and that he was not concerned about polls or perceptions. Mr. Obama spent $1.5 million on television advertisements in Iowa, a substantial amount that Iowa Democrats said has not appeared to improve his standing significantly.
And some of Mr. Obama’s advisers said Mrs. Clinton had done a far better job in dealing with one of her biggest tasks — trying to present herself as a candidate of change, notwithstanding her 15 years in Washington — than Mr. Obama had with the experience question. In the final week of August, Mr. Obama expressed frustration to some of his close associates at the course of his campaign, saying he felt his message was adrift, and personally took to rewriting some of the basic themes.
“I was confused initially on this whole experience argument,” he told supporters here recently, “because I’ve been in public service for 20 years as a community organizer, as a civil rights attorney, as a law professor, as a state senator, as a United States senator. And so I was a little puzzled, but I came to realize what they really mean by this argument is that I haven’t gotten enough seasoning in Washington.”
Reflecting his successful fund-raising, Mr. Obama has spent millions to build a field operation in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, and has enough money to build organizations in other states.
“We wouldn’t be putting staff in Colorado and California if we weren’t comfortable with our financial picture,” said David Plouffe, the Obama campaign manager. In Iowa alone, the Obama campaign is preparing to open its 31st field office, which is more than Mr. Edwards or Mrs. Clinton have.
“They are doing the fundamental organizational building that Dean overlooked,” said John Norris, an Obama supporter in Iowa, who managed John Kerry’s winning caucus campaign over Howard Dean four years ago. But the Democrats have all shied away from sustained attacks on one another. Mr. Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to Mr. Edwards in 2004, said he had learned the pitfalls of attacks in a field of multiple candidates.
“This history of these things is you can’t treat the process, to borrow Obama’s phrase, like a game of bumper cars,” he said. “You bump someone, you never know who else might drive past you.”