After a debate performance last week that continues to produce headlines — and that she admitted wasn’t her best showing — Hillary Clinton continues to enjoy a 20-point lead over her nearest rival in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
What’s more, Democrats still hold a double-digit lead over Republicans in a generic ballot test for the White House, due in large part to the poor political environment for the GOP.
Yet given those advantages, Clinton — as well as the other top Democrats in the race — finds herself in a dead heat in a general election match-up against Rudy Giuliani, who leads the GOP presidential field in the poll.
“Her primary numbers are certainly strong, and that is where the game is being played [right now],” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. But in a general election, Hart adds, Clinton “obviously has a lot of troubles and challenges ahead.”
“She has a lot to do to win the presidency.”
In the Democratic race, Clinton, the senator from New York, leads Illinois Sen. Barack Obama nationally, 47-25 percent — with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards coming in third at 11 percent. No other Democratic candidate receives more than 4 percent in the poll.
Polls in the all-important early battleground of Iowa, however, show a much tighter Democratic race.
Clinton’s 22-point advantage over Obama in the survey is virtually unchanged since this summer. In the September NBC/Journal poll, her lead was 21 points (44-23 percent). And in July, it was the same margin (43-22 percent).
“Hillary is essentially in no different shape than she’s been in this year,” says McInturff, the GOP pollster.
One of the reasons, it seems, why Clinton commands this lead over Obama is the perception of experience. Seventy-six percent of Democrats surveyed in the poll give Clinton high marks for being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency. By comparison, just 41 percent of Democrats say the same about Obama.
Similarly, 63 percent give Clinton high marks for her ability to be a good commander-in-chief. That’s compared with 43 percent who give Obama high marks on this question.
On the flip side, however, Obama is seen as more likeable than Clinton (72 percent of Democrats give him high marks here versus 49 percent for Clinton), as well as more honest and straightforward (65 percent versus 53 percent).
The poll — which was taken of 1,509 adults from Nov. 1-5 and which has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 2.5 percentage points — comes on the heels of last week’s Democratic debate, during which Clinton seemed to stumble on a question about New York Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to allow illegal immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses. After the debate, her Democratic rivals and Republicans critics pounced on her response to the question, some even producing Web videos ridiculing it.
But while Clinton is out in front in the Democratic horse race, she’s running neck-and-neck in a hypothetical general election match-up against Giuliani. She leads the former New York mayor by just one point, 46-45 percent, a statistical tie. In September, she had a seven-point advantage over Giuliani (49-42 percent).
Clinton’s virtual tie with Giuliani is in stark contrast to the Democrats’ overall political standing versus Republicans. In the poll, 50 percent said they’d vote for a generic Democrat in next year’s presidential election. That’s compared with just 35 percent who preferred a generic Republican.
Indeed, Hart believes that if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, one of the biggest stories next year will be whether the country can accept her. “At this stage, she has a magnificent tailwind,” given the Democrats’ advantages over Republicans in this political climate.
“But against that, she has an exceptionally polarizing image.”
For example, while 49 percent of Democrats give Clinton good marks for being likeable and easygoing, just 34 percent of all adults agree. And while 53 percent of Democrats see her as honest and straightforward, that’s again true of only 34 percent of all adults.
In the Republican horse race, Giuliani holds a 2-to-1 advantage over his nearest GOP rival. He leads the pack with the support of 33 percent of Republicans, while Arizona Sen. John McCain comes in second at 16 percent, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson finishes third at 15 percent.
Thompson’s standing is an eight-point drop since September, when Giuliani was at 30 percent, Thompson was at 23 percent and McCain was at 15 percent.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.