THE NOTE: Hillary Set to Face Haymakers at Debate


Cheer up, Democrats: The polls look pretty good for you. The autoworkers strike ended while you were sleeping. President Bush has decided to rediscover his conservative credentials by vetoing health insurance for working-class children. There's even a high-powered Democratic reunion of sorts this morning to remind you that the good old days aren't that far in the past.

None of that is going to make tonight's Democratic debate in New Hampshire a feel-good affair (though the Clinton-Gore photo-op may warm Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's heart). Time is running out for the second tier -- and it looks like they know it.

Coming into the debate -- the Democrats' last of the third quarter (and the next one isn't for a month) consider the not-so-nice things being said about the Democratic frontrunner:

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., is blasting Clinton and other Democrats in a new ad on Iraq (way to get the netroots on your side, too). Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., is warning that any Clinton healthcare plan is going to be ripped to shreds by the GOP -- simply because of its author.

And a more-and-more aggressive Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is inching toward the argument all of Clinton's rivals want to make. Dodd tells ABC News: "We need a nominee that is attractive to both Democrats and independents, and that does not energize the Republican base." (Will he say it on stage, or stick to paper?)

All of the Democrats need to challenge the notion that Clinton, D-N.Y., is the automatic and inevitable nominee. Yet nothing that's happened in the past eight months -- not Sen. Barack Obama's fund-raising prowess, former senator John Edwards' leftward nudges, or the various stop-and-go attack strategies of the rest of the field -- has shaken that notion.

In time for tonight's confrontation at Dartmouth College, a new WMUR/CNN poll in New Hampshire hammers home the perception that Clinton is stronger than ever: It has Clinton doubling up Obama, 43-20, with Edwards, D-N.C., at 12, and Richardson at 6. (The same poll had Clinton up by just 8 points in July and 20 in August.)

The factoid the Clinton camp wants you to memorize: The poll also has 54 percent of Democrats saying Clinton has the best chance of winning against the Republican nominee next year -- compared with 13 percent for Obama.

The nugget that gives the rest of the field some hope: "The poll also shows that while most likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters have a preference, fully 55 percent have yet to make up their minds," writes the Union Leader's John DiStaso. (DiStaso also reports that the Republican side of the poll shows Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., "within, or close to, the margin of error" behind the top two Republicans, but those numbers won't be out until later today.)

Clinton has "won" just about every one of the presidential forums so far, but the dynamic could be different once the piling-on begins. "The early strategies of Clinton's rivals -- wait for her to implode, stumble or become too polarizing a figure to advance -- have not come to be," The Hill's Sam Youngman reports. "Now, the only way to weaken Clinton's standings is to start attacking her on what they perceive as her weaknesses. The question is, who will strike out first."

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