Poll Shows Clinton With Solid Lead Among Democrats

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 23, 2007

By a wide margin, Democrats view Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) as the party's candidate best positioned to win the general election, and she holds a double-digit lead over Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in the race for the nomination, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll.

How competitive the Democratic contest becomes could turn on the question of whether voters are significantly more interested in a fresh face or in a candidate they see as projecting strong leadership.

Clinton enjoys a substantial edge over Obama among the 4 in 10 Democrats who said that in assessing presidential candidates, strength and experience are more important than new ideas or a new direction. Even among the 51 percent who prefer a change-oriented candidate, the core message of Obama's campaign, Clinton runs even with him.

It may be equally important that Clinton's initial support for the Iraq war is not proving a significant impediment to her bid. Clinton has drawn criticism this year for refusing to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing the use of force, but the poll shows her leading among Democrats who support a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces as well as those who oppose a deadline. She has a 51 percent to 29 percent lead over Obama among those in favor of a complete, immediate withdrawal.

Obama has sought to make his initial opposition to the war an asset in his campaign, but Clinton has become increasingly vocal in criticizing President Bush's management of the war and now supports a timetable for the start of troop withdrawals.

The poll comes as Democrats assemble in Charleston, S.C., tonight for their fourth debate of the year. The two-hour debate, sponsored by CNN and YouTube, will feature questions posted on YouTube, a video-sharing site, by people from around the country in what is likely to be one of the most innovative debate formats to date.

With almost six months of hard campaigning before the first primaries and caucuses, the Democratic race is far from settled.

To close the gap with Clinton, Obama will need to convince more voters that he is the best candidate to offer the country a new direction after the partisan wars of the past decades. He must also neutralize Clinton's advantage among those who emphasize strength and experience, or draw significant numbers of new voters to the primaries. The nomination battle could also be decided on the question of who Democrats believe has the best chance of recapturing the White House after eight years of Republican rule.

Clinton is a polarizing figure, which has raised questions about whether she could win a general election. But Democrats appear to dismiss that argument. Asked which Democratic candidate has the best chance of winning the general election in November 2008, 54 percent said Clinton, more than twice the percentage saying Obama (22 percent). Nine percent think former senator John Edwards (N.C.) would be most likely to win. Among Democratic-leaning independents, 44 percent said Clinton, 25 percent Obama and 11 percent Edwards.

Republicans and independents are less convinced that Clinton has the best shot. Among independents, 35 percent cited Clinton as the Democrat with the best chance of beating the GOP nominee and 29 percent said Obama. Among Republicans, 37 percent said Clinton and 33 percent Obama.

At this early stage, Clinton remains the candidate to beat in the Democratic field.

Overall, 45 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents support Clinton to be the party's nominee, with Obama second at 30 percent. Edwards, whose hopes for winning depend heavily on a victory in the Iowa caucuses in January, is at 12 percent. Clinton's margin over Obama has been generally steady since February, just after the two candidates launched their presidential bids.

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