The latest public opinion polls suggest U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton is widening her lead for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination next year. In the first of a series of reports on the 2008 presidential election, VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports that many Democrats and political experts are beginning to wonder if anything or anyone can stop Clinton's march to the nomination.
The latest Gallup poll had Clinton at 50 percent, followed by Senator Barack Obama of Illinois at 21 percent and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina at 13 percent. The five other Democratic contenders trail well behind.
Clinton's lead in the polls has grown in recent months, as the pace of the campaign begins to accelerate.
"Well, if you are ready for change, I am ready to lead, and this country is desperate for leadership," she said.
Most political experts say Clinton appears well on her way to the Democratic Party nomination, even though the selection process will not begin until early January.
"At the moment, it is a very skillful campaign, and if it keeps up, she will be the nominee," said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington. "Her numbers have not dropped. They have, in fact, gotten larger over the course of the campaign."
"She is very disciplined and solid on the campaign trail," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington. "She has an enormous lead in the polls, and she has almost universal name recognition. And, I think, there is an increasing clamor in the country to see a woman nominated as president."
Clinton has improved her poll numbers in some of the early presidential contest states, as well. She leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that traditionally begin the nominee selection process for both major political parties in January.
"You see a much more stable race," said Dante Scala, an expert on the New Hampshire primary at the University of New Hampshire. "You have got Hillary Clinton with a wide lead at this point, and what has been surprising to me is how well the Clinton campaign has weathered the rigors of being the frontrunner."
Despite her formidable lead in the polls, Hillary Clinton remains a polarizing figure in national politics.
Some Democrats worry that independent voters and moderate Republicans will be reluctant to support her if she becomes the Democratic nominee.
Expert Stephen Wayne says some of Clinton's Democratic rivals have raised this concern during the campaign.
"To campaign on the fact that she is the only Democrat who might not be electable -"She has very high negatives [approval ratings], fairly or unfairly, and if the Democrats want a winner, they should stick with someone who does not have those high negatives.' I do not think that is going to be a very appealing argument for Democratic activists," he said.
Clinton has been able to fend off a strong challenge from Senator Obama, a relative newcomer to the national political stage. Obama has been Clinton's equal in fundraising, and is trying to appeal to Democrats searching for a fresh face in 2008.
"Barack Obama, who is in second place in the polls, has sparked a lot of enthusiasm and done extremely well in fundraising, but he has yet to give the American people a solid rationale as to why they should reject Hillary Clinton," said Historian Allan Lichtman. "And, I think, there is a feeling that he may not be quite ready, and that he is a future, rather than a present presidential candidate."
Lichtman says Clinton has angered some anti-war Democrats by not promising an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq if she is elected. But Lichtman also says disputes among the Democratic contenders over Iraq and U.S. relations with Iran are not likely to threaten Clinton's chances of winning the nomination.
"I think she certainly has some vulnerability with respect to liberal Democratic base voters when it comes to her policy on Iraq and Iran," he said. "But without going relentlessly negative, it is going to be very difficult for any of her rivals to exploit that, and, at this point, none of them seem quite ready to wage a mostly negative campaign."
There is polling evidence that Democrats may be willing to rally around Clinton as the Democratic candidate best able to counter Republican attacks in the general election.
"Democrats up here in New Hampshire are as aggressive and hungry for more victories than they have been since I have been up here," said University of New Hampshire expert Dante Scala. "And so, I think they are looking for who can carry the banner the best."
Despite Clinton's apparent strength, experts caution it would be foolish to declare a winner before the primaries and caucuses even begin.
In 2004, Howard Dean was the early Democratic frontrunner, but his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire evaporated in a matter of weeks, and John Kerry quickly surged to the party nomination.
Democrats will formally nominate their candidates for president and vice-president at their national convention in late August in Denver, Colorado.
US Republican Mitt Romney in Lead for Party's Nomination in Early Voting States
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney continues to lead other candidates for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire, although he trails some of the better-known contenders in national polls. Political analysts praise Romney's energetic campaign, but they say his changing positions on controversial issues and his Mormon faith may be serious obstacles to his quest for the White House. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has more on the Romney candidacy in this report from Washington.
On the surface, Willard Mitt Romney would seem to be the perfect candidate for president of the United States. He is telegenic, vigorous, and appears to relish meeting average Americans on the campaign trail.
Most political analysts see Romney as a polished politician and charismatic speaker. The 60-year-old candidate for the Republican presidential nomination was born into a political family, graduated from Harvard and is a former venture capitalist worth nearly $350 million.
In 2003, Romney was sworn in as the Republican governor of the heavily Democratic state of Massachusetts. His candidacy was given a boost after he successfully managed the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which before his arrival was tarnished by a bribery scandal.
Romney's turnaround of the Olympics made him a popular national figure and helped set the stage for his successful run for governor and current campaign for president.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says Romney is a strong contender.
"He's the most energetic candidate," he says. "He has the toughest schedule. He seems to work the hardest. He wants it the most. That matters in nomination politics."
Romney was born in 1947 in Detroit. He is the son of George Romney, a former governor of Michigan and unsuccessful candidate for president.
Romney was raised in the Mormon Church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The Mormon faith remains a mystery to many Americans. It is a faith that embraces American ideals of optimism, hard work and frugality.
But it also requires a passion for evangelism and secret temple ceremonies like baptisms for the dead, a ritual in which a living person is baptized on behalf of a dead individual who was not a Mormon. The ritual is not practiced in modern mainstream Christianity.
Polls show 35 percent of Americans say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate for president, and political analyst Larry Sabato says that is a big problem for Romney.
"The liberals oppose Mormons because they are very conservative in their philosophy," he says. "The conservatives oppose Mormons because the fundamentalist religions consider them a cult. So you can't win. You lose people coming and going. These two strange ships passing in the night could end up hurting Romney's candidacy considerably."
Romney is a descendant of pioneer Mormons and is a passionate lay leader of the modern church. He spent more than two years as a missionary in Europe and says he does not believe his faith will harm his chances for election.
"I don't think people get into doctrines and, if you will, the periphery of a faith," he says. "My faith has made me a better person."
When Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he positioned himself as a moderate, favoring abortion rights, courting gay voters and supporting environmental groups.
However, as he prepared to run for president, Romney moved significantly to the right. He changed his positions dramatically, becoming an opponent of abortion and a critic of gay marriage. He adopted conservative stands on other social issues. Critics use the phrase "flip-flop" to describe Romney's revised views.
The candidate says his positions have evolved as he has moved through life.
"Not everything I believed 12 or 13 years ago is the same today," he says.
"I think Mitt Romney would like to get to that conservative sweet spot in the Republican Party," says John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in the study of presidential politics. "He would like to show himself to be the true conservative in this race."
On foreign policy, Romney supports the current U.S. troop surge in Iraq and has harshly criticized the leaders of Iran.
Although Romney never served in the military, he portrays himself as a strong supporter of American men and women in uniform.
"When it comes to strengthening our military, I want to add at least 100,000 additional troops and provide the equipment they need in the battlefield to be safe and give them the care they deserve when they come home," he says.
Romney frequently campaigns with his family, including his high school sweetheart and wife Ann, their five sons and 10 grandchildren. Nearly 100 members of the Romney clan showed up last August to help him campaign just before the Iowa Straw Poll, an informal test of a candidate's strength in the state.
Romney won the straw poll by a sizeable margin, although some other Republican candidates chose not to compete after the Romney campaign devoted substantial resources to the contest.
The campaign's focus is now on the early voting
states of Iowa and New Hampshire, with the hope that a good showing in those
contests will propel Romney to the lead among Republican candidates for
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