WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton faced a tougher-than-expected path in New Hampshire on Wednesday after seeing a big lead slip there, and a top aide denied reports of turmoil in her camp.
Already staring at a close contest in Iowa with rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards, the former first lady has seen her double-digit lead vanish in New Hampshire.
A WMUR/CNN poll showed the New York senator leading Obama 31 percent to 30 percent in the northeastern state, which on January 8 holds the first primary vote in the run-up to the November 2008 presidential election, after Iowa’s January 3 caucuses.
The results meant that with three weeks to go until Iowa, Clinton suddenly faced the possibility of losing both of the earliest states, even as she enjoys a sizable lead in national polls.
Coupled with the New Hampshire poll was a report in the New York Daily News that said Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, was alarmed by his wife’s poll slide and -- according to one source -- has “literally dozens of ideas” on how to right the ship.
“She’s in big trouble and she knows it,” a top Democratic operative and Hillary Clinton booster told the newspaper. The article said staff purges might occur.
Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe scoffed.
“I can unequivocally put to rest any rumors,” he said in an MSNBC interview. “There are no staff shake-ups. Everybody was there, will continue to be there. Hillary has one of the most dedicated, loyal staffs in any campaign that anybody could ask for.”
New Hampshire has long been viewed as a state where Clinton could rebound if she was unable to win Iowa.
Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said she believed Clinton could survive losing both Iowa and New Hampshire because of her large national lead and strong organization, but that she would need to rebound in South Carolina on January 26.
Fowler said when polls show movement like this in New Hampshire, it is usually attributable to the state’s large bloc of independent voters breaking one way or another.
“These have been the people who have been the most skeptical about Hillary all along,” Fowler said.
Costa Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Fordham University in New York, said a tightening in the hard-fought race was expected.
“You simply don’t get the nod in an open race without having to fight hard for it. Still, Sen. Clinton is a seasoned politician with considerable strengths. If she and her cadre of professional operatives cannot strategize a path forward then nobody can,” he said.
It all amounts to a significant challenge for Clinton, whose campaign lately has been advancing her as the most electable Democrat and trying to raise questions about Obama, pointing out that the Illinois senator vowed in a 2003 questionnaire to vote to repeal the anti-terror USA Patriot Act but two years later voted to reauthorize the law.
The Obama campaign was bracing for negative attacks from the Clinton side heading into the final weeks before the first of the state-by-state contests to choose the parties’ nominees.
“We’re really hoping to focus on issues, that it doesn’t become some sort of negative campaign. If we can keep that focus positive, I think that folks will be well-served and I really like our chances here,” said Ned Helms, a co-chair of Obama’s New Hampshire campaign.
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)
Editing by Patricia Zengerle