Experience Trumps for Clinton; 'New Direction' Keeps Obama Going

A steady hand outscores a fresh face in uncertain times, much to the benefit of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race for president. But demand for a new direction is strong, nonetheless — a lurking threat to her front-running candidacy.

Clinton and Barack Obama are tied for support among Democrats who chiefly seek "a new direction and new ideas" in the nation's leadership. By contrast, she trounces him by more than 30 points among those looking more for strength and experience, maintaining the overall advantage she's held all year in ABC News/Washington Post polls.

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The challenge for Clinton is that a new direction and new ideas are actually more valued than strong leadership and experience — by 51 percent to 42 percent — among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

That means Clinton's strongest cards are in a weaker suit; if Obama were able either to challenge her on strength and experience, or — more likely — better capitalize on his "new direction" image, the contest could tighten.

As things stand, Clinton's now supported by 45 percent of leaned Democrats, Obama by 30 percent and John Edwards by 12 percent, with all others in the single digits. These numbers have been remarkably steady since February.

Putting Al Gore in the mix does the most damage to Clinton, knocking six points off her support, though she'd still hold a double-digit lead.

STRENGTH and ELECTABILITY — One change is a surge in "strong" support for each of the major candidates, suggesting a hardening of positions as the campaign progresses. Sixty-eight percent of Clinton's supporters now strongly back her, up 15 points to a new high.

Fifty-six percent of Obama's backers are strongly behind him, up 13 points from last month.

With Clinton's continued lead comes an aura of electability, at least in her own party.

Fifty percent of leaned Democrats pick her as the candidate who has the best chance to win in 2008, more than twice as many as name Obama. Indeed, three in 10 of Obama's own supporters see Clinton as having the better chance to win.

In all, just 54 percent of Obama's supporters think he has the best chance to win in a general election contest. By contrast, 78 percent of Clinton's backers say she's got the best shot against the eventual Republican nominee.

Republicans, for their part, are far less likely to see Clinton as the Democrats' strongest candidate.

Tonight's Democratic debate — the fourth this year — may not have much effect. Leaned Democrats by more than a 2-to-1 margin — 69 percent to 31 percent — say they have not watched any of the debates so far. And vote preferences are essentially identical among those who have watched the debates, and those who have not.

ONLINE — A feature of tonight's debate is its use of the Internet, with questions for the candidates offered by users of the video-sharing site YouTube.

That's still a new activity. In a Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll in May, 17 percent of adults said they use video-sharing sites for information about politics; 4 percent use them "a lot." That compares with 85 percent who use television news for political information, with 53 percent "a lot."

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