Buffeted by attacks from her rivals and accused of political double-talk, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has hit a rough patch on the road to her party's nomination.
She remains firmly in the lead and there is no indication that her advantage nationally is in serious jeopardy, but a less-than-sharp debate performance last week has given hope to her Democratic opponents and energized Republicans.
In Iowa, polls show Clinton is basically in a dead heat, holding a narrow lead over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. A big lead in New Hampshire has weakened a bit.
Iowa on January 3 holds the first of the state-by-state battles to choose the Democratic and Republican candidates who will vie for the U.S. presidential election on November 4, 2008. A win in Iowa can generate momentum for the next state contest in New Hampshire, and beyond.
A close race in Iowa
The state is so important that her campaign sent out her husband, popular former President Bill Clinton, to try to bolster her position, with stops in western Iowa on Thursday.
Many Iowa voters are undecided on whom to support. A key issue for some is whether Clinton has too much baggage from her years in the Clinton White House, during which Republicans labeled her as a liberal out of touch with mainstream America and a polarizing figure.
Mike Fredericks, 55, a Cedar Rapids firefighter, went to a Clinton event in Newton, Iowa, the other day. He said he thought Clinton would be an effective president, but that he is supporting Obama because he would be more of a uniter.
"I think the biggest concern would be the possible divisiveness if she is elected. I think she'd have a hard time convincing her detractors that she could do a good job," Fredericks said.
Lisa Howe, 49, of Adel, said she had some worries about Clinton's electability.
"I think she's articulate. I think she's strong. I think it remains to be seen if she can win the presidential race. She has to overcome a legacy that is both positive and negative, and like it or not, there are some people who are going to question the viability of a woman candidate," Howe said.
Staying above the fray
Clinton had what she has admitted was not her best week last week when she was repeatedly attacked by Edwards and Obama at the Philadelphia debate.
Her equivocating answer to a question about whether she supported plans by New York state to allow illegal immigrants to have drivers licenses has prompted lingering criticism from Obama and Edwards. Republicans are using it as a new line of attack on their old foe.
On the stump, Clinton tries to remain above the fray. In Newton, she talked about ways to create jobs through better environmental practices and offered a vignette about what it was like growing up in Illinois.
Her father, she said, did not like to waste energy, turning down the heat at night and insisting she pile on the blankets if she got cold.
"If you look at how much electricity we waste in the home today, it's shocking," she said. "We have not taken the simple steps to conserve like our parents and grandparents did."
A USA Today/Gallup poll found much of America still warm to Clinton. It said she is backed by 50 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, compared with 22 percent for Obama and 15 percent for Edwards.
Will she be able to weather the storm?
She still holds a 20-point lead over her nearest competitor in the race for the Democratic nomination, but she would face a dead heat against Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
But she still has vulnerabilities. Polls find she has an unfavorability ratings of 45 percent or more, higher than that of any other contender.
Democratic strategist Doug Schoen, who worked in the Clinton White House but is unaligned in the presidential campaign, said he believed Clinton was bound to face a "moment of truth," and he thinks she will be able to weather the storm.
"She got so far ahead that any time she hits a little turbulence she would slip a little. And she may have slipped a bit. But she is so far ahead that I don't think the fundamental dynamic to the race has changed," Schoen said.