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Steady Gains

While there is a lot of talk these days about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's strong showing in Democratic presidential primary polls, considerably less has been said about the small but consistent improvement in her general election poll standings.

During the first four months of this year, Clinton trailed former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in almost nine out of every 10 national polls. She ran behind John McCain in about half of those polls, even as the Arizona senator's support was crumbling. Clinton ran even with or ahead of the other GOP contenders, who were, for the most part, not well known enough to be a fair test of strength, even against a polarizing Democratic candidate.

Fast-forward to today. Clinton hasn't trailed Giuliani since mid-July and hasn't run behind McCain or Mitt Romney since early June. And she has never trailed Fred Thompson.

To be sure, her general election margins are never particularly wide. In a Cook Political Report/ RT Strategies national poll conducted October 18-21 among 855 registered voters, Clinton led Giuliani by 4 points, 43 percent to 39 percent, drawing 80 percent of the Democratic vote while the former mayor pulled 77 percent of the GOP vote. Giuliani edged Clinton by 3 points among independent voters, 38 percent to 35 percent.

Against Romney, Clinton held a 9-point advantage, 46 percent to 37 percent, and received 82 percent of her party's vote while the former Massachusetts governor garnered 76 percent of the Republican vote. In that matchup, Clinton led among independents by 4 points, 39 percent to 35 percent.

The pattern from the polls is clear: Clinton never wins big, generally holding a lead of 2 to 8 points over Giuliani and 10 to 13 points over Romney. But her leads are consistent. She has a high floor and a low ceiling, like a stock with a fairly narrow trading range. She doesn't trail, but she doesn't ever blow the Republican opposition away, either.

What seems to be happening is that Hillary Clinton is not really becoming more likable, she is becoming less unacceptable. She doesn't seem to convert people so much as wear down their opposition to her.

Although general election dynamics are far different from those of the nomination fight, some aspects of the Democratic primary battle are still instructive. Both Clinton and Barack Obama have limited experience in the U.S. Senate and rather nontraditional pre-Senate backgrounds -- Clinton as first lady of both Arkansas and the United States, Obama as an Illinois state senator and a community activist.

As a supporter of a rival Democrat pointed out, the Democrats running fourth (Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico), fifth (Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut), and sixth (Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware) in the polls each have more high-level governmental experience than the first (Clinton), second (Obama), and third (former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina) do combined. But, like two college students seeking to change schools, Clinton's credits are transferring, while Obama's are not. First lady is not the normal glide path for a presidential contender, but over time it has become accepted.

Rather than wearing thin, Clinton seems to be wearing better. She has moved up impressively in the polls for both the nomination and the general election. Some suggested early on that voters would tire of her, but instead they almost seem resigned to her winning the Democratic nomination, and the early pattern in her general election polling seems to be following the same trajectory, at least for now.

The key thing, though, is that narrow trading range. Unless Clinton becomes dramatically less polarizing, which seems improbable, she is likely to maintain her slim but consistent advantage. But will it ever widen to the point where a misstep or a bit of misfortune wouldn't give her Republican opponent the lead? That's the key question.

She seems to be putting the Democratic nomination away, but can she ever put the general election away? Or will she always have no better than a narrow lead in the polls, never quite beyond striking distance from her GOP rival?

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