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There's little middle ground on Hillary for president Almost half of those polled say they would not vote for her

Ask Bill Dukas about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he'll give you an earful.

She's been "unimpressive" as a senator.

She "has a personality that lacks spontaneity."

And she "emotes ambition."

Dukas, a 63-year-old semiretired construction contractor from Kerhonkson in the Hudson Valley, is not very excited about the moves Clinton made last week toward running for president in 2008.

"The odds are zero she'll get a vote here," Dukas said.

Unfortunately for Clinton, Dukas' opinions aren't uncommon. Even though she's far ahead of her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, a poll released last week by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion indicated that 47 percent of likely voters would not vote for her for president under any circumstances.

"It means there's not a lot of room for error" if Clinton runs for president, said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute.

Miringoff and other political scientists said Clinton's problem is that, while she's beloved by her supporters, a large minority of the voting public just doesn't like her.

For some voters, negative images of Clinton created during the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton, have stuck for years. Political pundits said that's a huge hurdle for a politician who seems to have everything else -- talent, money, name recognition going for her.

But Clinton aides say that, if she runs, her campaign would be just one more opportunity to change minds, which she has clearly done in New York.

In upstate New York which is demographically similar to swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio Clinton got 61 percent of the vote in her recent re-election bid. That compares with 48 percent in her first race in 2000.

In New York City suburbs, she boosted her share of the vote from 44 percent to 60 percent.

And 64 percent of independent voters pulled the lever for Clinton, up from 46 percent in 2000.

"Anybody who looks at what happened realizes she has a tremendous ability to move people," said Howard Wolfson, Clinton's chief political spokesman.

>Negative responses

Then again, she also appears to have a tremendous ability to move some people toward vitriol.

"She's shrewd, crude, driven and without conscience or remorse," one female voter wrote in response to a Buffalo News story about Clinton, who alluded to controversies from Bill Clinton's presidency as the reason for her rancor.

"She's politically expedient," said another.

Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group of Manchester, N.H., heard even worse things earlier this year when he started conducting focus groups to gather voter impressions of likely contenders in the state's key 2008 primary.

Asked to describe Clinton in a word or two, even Democratic voters frequently volunteered terms such as "awful," "cold," "evil" and "phony."

"What was interesting in terms of her is: I couldn't tell the differences in responses between the Democrats and the Republicans," said Bennett, a widely respected independent pollster.

In other words, the Democrats who dislike Clinton dislike her strongly and are thus less likely to be moved to support her.

"It's real, but the Clinton people are smart people, and I'm sure they know about it and are going to do something about it," Bennett said.

It's also possible that Clinton's "negatives" won't matter in the Democratic primaries, for one simple reason. Many Democrats see Clinton as an iconic figure whose presidency would be a restoration, of sorts, of the last great Democratic administration.

"I think that everybody agrees that there's a significant percentage of primary voters that's enthusiastically behind her," said John Gorman, chairman of Opinion Dynamics Corp., a Cambridge, Mass.-based polling firm.

In a poll that Opinion Dynamics did for Fox News last week, even the emergence of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois a Democratic rock star who's now toying with a White House run did nothing to dent Clinton's support.

That poll showed 33 percent of the Democratic voters backing Clinton, which is statistically unchanged from a similar poll in August. That poll showed Obama in second place with the support of 12 percent of Democrats, slightly ahead of former Sen. John Edwards and former Vice President Al Gore. Both Edwards and Gore had lost support from earlier polls, which didn't mention Obama.

>Polls matter little

Of course, national polls matter little at this stage, 13 months before Iowa Democrats meet to begin the nominating process. What matters more is what's happening on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire, which will hold its primary shortly after the Iowa caucuses.

Clinton remains broadly popular in Iowa, said Gordon Fischer, a former state Democratic chairman who is supporting a favorite-son candidate, outgoing Gov. Tom Vilsack.

"Everyone loves Hillary," Fischer said. "I think she's just a tremendous person and a real asset to the Democratic Party."

But that doesn't mean she has the caucuses locked up, Fischer added.

"The concern is that Iowa Democrats are very sophisticated, and they want to win the general election," Fischer said. "The question is, is there any room for her to get any more support?"

In other words, Republican voters like George Holdridge could prove to be a worry to Iowa Democrats.

"I think she is purely political," said Holdridge, 71, a Republican from Orchard Park, N.Y. "Anybody who would put up with Bill Clinton is devoid of character."

While any Democratic candidate will have trouble moving hard-core Republicans, Clinton's task, if nominated, will be to move the independents and centrist Republicans who could swing a swing state or two the Democrats' way.

If Clinton runs for president, she'll reach out to voters just like she did in New York, said Lorraine Voles, her communications director.

"She works hard and she proves herself," Voles said. "That's what she'll continue to do."

Wolfson agreed. Noting that many national polls show Clinton running "very close" to leading GOP hopefuls such as Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Wolfson said: "She's very well-positioned at the start."

If she runs, Wolfson said, "we will make the strong case that she can effectively be the president and be elected president."

>Overcoming negatives

While polls show Clinton with a "negative" rating of about 42 percent in many samplings, Clinton backers James Carville and Mark Penn noted in the Washington Post last summer that any Democrat's negative ratings will be that high in the heat of the 2008 campaign.

And besides, a high negative rating isn't necessarily enough to kill a presidential candidacy.

In October 2004, President Bush's negative rating hovered around 50 percent in many polls.

He was re-elected president the next month.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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