As N.H. Primary Nears, Clinton Clings to Narrow Lead

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton holds a narrow lead over Sen Barack Obama among Democratic presidential candidates in New Hampshire, a state whose primary her campaign has viewed as a potential firewall should she stumble in the Iowa caucuses, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Clinton is widely seen as the party's best experienced and most electable presidential candidate, but with most Democratic voters in the state looking for a fresh approach to governing, the first-in-the-nation primary has become fiercely competitive.

With New Hampshire voters set to go to the polls on Jan. 8, Clinton (N.Y.) got 35 percent in the new poll, with Obama (Ill.) close behind at 29 percent. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) ran third with 17 percent and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was fourth at 10 percent. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) each registered 3 percent or less.

With Iowa shaping up as a competitive three-way contest between Clinton, Obama and Edwards, Clinton also faces a difficult fight in a state with a history of disappointing national front-runners. In the early fall, Clinton led Obama and other Democrats by more than 20 points in a University of New Hampshire-CNN-WMUR poll.

Although Clinton's edge has shrunk, her supporters are more enthusiastic and loyal than are Obama's or Edwards's, and she scores better on measures of strength, experience and electability than any rival. She was also the most trusted on six out of seven issues tested in this poll. But New Hampshire voters said Obama is the most inspiring candidate in the field, by a 2 to 1 ratio over Clinton.

And most Granite State Democrats, like probable caucus-goers in Iowa, regard a "new direction and new ideas" as a higher priority than "strength and experience." That discussion has been a pivot point in the Democratic race, and it largely defines the battle in New Hampshire.

Among the 53 percent who emphasize change, Obama is ahead with 44 percent, to 19 percent each for Clinton and Edwards. By contrast, Clinton has a commanding lead among the 37 percent prioritizing strength and experience: She got 57 percent of these voters, while 14 percent preferred Edwards, 11 percent Richardson and 10 percent Obama.

About half of those polled said Clinton is the Democratic candidate with the best resume for the White House, the strongest leadership skills and the best chance of winning in November 2008. She has wide advantages on each of these attributes.

Edwards's top quality as a candidate is empathy: Twenty percent of voters said he best understands their concerns, putting him nearly even with Obama, at 24 percent, and Clinton, at 28. Clinton and Obama tied on who would do the most to bring needed change to Washington; Clinton's campaign has argued that it takes her level of experience to move entrenched bureaucracies.

Obama has the edge on honesty, with 29 percent calling him the most trustworthy, compared with 21 percent for Clinton and 17 percent for Edwards. As in Iowa, New Hampshire voters see Obama and Edwards as more candid than Clinton. While more than seven in 10 said Obama and Edwards are sufficiently willing to say what they really think about the issues, 55 percent said so about Clinton.

Voters said they trust Clinton on most major issues, including health care and the war in Iraq, each cited by about half of New Hampshire Democratic voters as the election's most important or second-most important issue. The only other issues to reach double digits are the economy and education.

Clinton has an edge of 23 percentage points as the candidate voters trust the most to handle health care and 17-point margins on the economy, Social Security and the federal budget deficit. She has an 11-point lead on handling terrorism and a six-point edge on Iraq. On immigration, Clinton and Obama are preferred by nearly equal percentages.

In a Post-ABC Iowa poll last month, Clinton had a significant advantage on only one of six issues tested. Another contrast to the Iowa poll, where Clinton and Obama split female voters about evenly, is that in New Hampshire she has a double-digit lead among women.

While Clinton outpaced Obama in the new poll among female voters, 39 percent to 27 percent, the two candidates drew about the same level of support from men (Obama 31 percent, Clinton 28 percent).

Women have also been central to Clinton's front-runner status in national polling. In the most recent Post-ABC national poll, she had a 32-point advantage among women and a more narrow margin among men. Overall, Clinton has maintained double-digit leads in national polling since the beginning of the campaign, although some polls have reported modest slippage.

In New Hampshire, Clinton's being a woman appears to be net positive. Although most said gender is not a factor in their vote, two in 10 said her opportunity to be the first female president makes them more likely to vote for her, and that number spikes among unmarried women. Three percent of all voters said it makes them less likely to back her.

Clinton leads among self-identified Democrats, who backed her by 41 percent to 26 percent over Obama. Independents divided 31 percent for Obama and 27 percent for Clinton. Nearly eight in 10 of self-described independents are not registered with a major party, allowing them to participate in either primary. In this poll, about six in 10 undeclared voters said they would opt for the Democratic ballot if the election were held today.

As in Iowa, Obama does better among voters under age 45 than among those 45 and up, while Clinton does substantially better among older voters. Clinton bested Obama by better than 2 to 1 (44 percent to 21 percent) among those 65 and older. She has a big lead among voters with annual household incomes below $50,000, and she and Obama run about even among those with higher incomes.

The biggest advantage Clinton takes into the final stretch may be that 53 percent of her supporters in New Hampshire said they will "definitely" back her in January, and nearly six in 10 said they are "very enthusiastic" about voting for her. Far fewer of Obama's or Edwards's supporters are that committed or excited about their top candidate.

New Hampshire's electorate is well known for late shifts in sentiment. About half of likely Democratic voters said they could change their mind before the Jan. 8 primary.

Clinton's New Hampshire team is working to insulate her from a possible loss in Iowa, and the deep roots that she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have put down in New Hampshire over the past 16 years appear to provide her a foundation that her rivals do not enjoy. By a 17-point margin, voters said she is the candidate who has campaigned the hardest in the state.

The poll was conducted by telephone among a random sample of 592 New Hampshire adults likely to vote in the Democratic primary. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points. Error margins are higher for subgroups.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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