Are Clinton's 'Negatives' Too Much to Overcome?

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Sen. Hillary Clinton has roared out of the gates as the leading fundraiser in the 2008 presidential campaign and the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Now polls suggest she may be much more vulnerable than she looks.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're also looking ahead this week to the first major debate of the campaign for the White House. The debate takes place Thursday and will feature all the major Democratic candidates.

NPR's Juan Williams is reporting on the campaigns, and joins us now for some analysis.

Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: It seems awfully early to be having debates when the election is more than a year and a half away, but I guess everything is starting awfully early this year.

WILLIAMS: Well, it's all frontloaded, because everybody is trying to move their primary, their caucus up, as you know. So there's a lot on the line early in terms of defining the candidates, fundraising that we've been talking about now. But I think there are lots of issues that the candidates are trying to really settle in the minds of voters. That's what's critical at this juncture.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's look at some of the candidates and what they need to accomplish, starting with the Democratic frontrunner, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.

WILLIAMS: Well, what's happened over the last few days is just so intriguing, Renee. According to a Gallup Poll, what you see is that more Americans now say they have an unfavorable opinion of Senator Clinton than a favorable opinion -52 percent to 45 percent.

And that rating has been under 50 percent in the last three Gallup polls in a row, and it had been consistently above 50 percent since, I guess - go back to, like, mid-year June 2003. And as recently as February, her favorability rating was over 50 percent, at about 58 percent. So something is in the water with regard to Hillary Clinton, according to Gallup.

Now if you look at some other polls that have been done recently - and here I'm thinking about Washington Post and also Fox News - they have Hillary Clinton's lead over her primary challenger - Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois -being maintained at about 20 points, 21 points in the Fox poll, 17 percent in the Post poll.

But in that Gallup Poll I'm telling you about, it's now only 5 percentage points. And so the whole issue is one of can she be elected in the general election if she's having this much trouble inside her own party? And secondly, the whole notion of inevitability, that it was inevitably going to be Hillary Clinton's race, now seems to be fading because of this whole question about her favorability/unfavorability rating among Democrats.

MONTAGNE: Now if Senator Barack Obama is, if you will, sneaking up on her -he's a strong challenger, it looks like even a little bit stronger now - how can he build on his momentum?

WILLIAMS: The challenge for Senator Obama is proving that he has some substance. You know, we were just talking about Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton already has all sorts of policy papers out, proposals - she can say exactly where she has been on the issues.

Barack Obama is really trying to get a structure up in terms of a campaign. And part of that structure is to build policy positions. So he's having to prove that he is not just a charismatic man with a wonderful personal life story that is charging up crowds, but that he is someone with substance, someone who can deal with issues, someone who can speak to the heart and soul of those who have specific interests and say, here's where I stand and here's where I don't stand. He's having to define himself, and that's what the - why the debates are just so critical for Barack Obama.

MONTAGNE: And John Edwards got a lot of press last week, probably not the kind he wanted, considering it had to do with a couple of $400 haircuts.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, because when we looked at - when the reporters looked at the financial disclosure statements, there were haircuts in Hollywood and even in Iowa that cost more than some people earn in a week. So, you know, it's very interesting. I mean, he really did get more attention as a result of dealing so gracefully with his wife's cancer reoccurring.

But the haircut thing has undercut one of the central principles of his campaign, which is that he was standing out there and saying that he was speaking for people who are battling the middle class crunch in this country and people who were having a hard time making it.

And suddenly, here he is having these extravagant haircuts, and I think a lot of people just sort of mock and make fun of him, making fun of this haircut. Not what he wanted at all.

MONTAGNE: Well, plenty more to come from the campaign trail. We got a year and a half. Thanks very much, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Analysis from NPR senior correspondent, Juan Williams. He joined us on the line from Phoenix. The first Democratic primary debate takes place Thursday in South Carolina.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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