Clinton Advisers Say Debate Helped Her Widen Her Lead

Sen. Hillary Clinton's advisers say there has been a delayed backlash against Sen. Barack Obama from the first Democratic presidential debate last month.

The latest USA Today/Gallup Poll seems to bear this out. Clinton has opened up a 15-point lead over Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. She has the support of 38 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters, up from 31 percent three weeks ago, while Obama has dropped 3 points to 23 percent.

Clinton strategists trace her widened lead to her strong performance in the debate--and, in their view, the way Obama faltered in answering a key question about what he would do if America were the target of another 9/11-type attack. The Illinois senator at first didn't specifically call for military retaliation, but Clinton immediately did.

"People felt that she was sure, she was steady, she was decisive," says a Democratic strategist with close ties to the Clinton campaign. "It showed the gap in their experience."

After the debate, 41 percent of those watching said Clinton had won, compared with 12 percent each for Obama and John Edwards, according to polls for Clinton made available to U.S. News. More broadly, the issue of experience is becoming increasingly important in the Clinton campaign. Her strategists have concluded that it is a big vulnerability for Obama.

"People are coming to the realization that being president in this day and age means at any minute you have to make critical decisions that are important to millions of people," says the Democratic strategist, "and that might be the most important aspect of picking the next president."

For their part, allies of Obama say that during the debate he realized he might not have made himself clear in his first response and came back to the question of a terrorist attack by saying he would take whatever action was needed once it was known who the attackers were. More broadly, Senate experience doesn't guarantee good judgment, Obama strategists say.

They point out that it was the young senator from Illinois who opposed the now unpopular Iraq war from the start, while Clinton voted to authorize it.

By Kenneth T. Walsh