WASHINGTON — Carol Levesque, a retired New Hampshire social worker, used to think Hillary Rodham Clinton was not cut out for the White House. Levesque looked askance at Clinton's decision to run for the U.S. Senate. She was lukewarm about how Clinton conducted herself as first lady to an unfaithful husband.
Now, Levesque is an avid fan. After seeing Clinton three times, she was wowed by the New York Democrat's apparent brainpower. She was, to use her word, "underwhelmed" by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) when he made a presidential campaign stop in Peterborough, N.H., recently. And as the granddaughter of a pioneering supporter of women's suffrage, Levesque, 65, is thrilled with the prospect of electing a woman president.
Levesque's conversion offers a window into how Clinton has emerged as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination: One of the most demonized politicians in America has begun to win a second look from skeptics. And among women and seniors, such as Levesque, she has built big leads over her rivals.
That underscores one of Clinton's most important assets in the turbulent few months ahead of the balloting set for early January. She has built a political base -- reflected in polls -- of voters who dominate the Democratic nominating process: seniors, women and blue-collar voters.
That's a troublesome trend for Obama, who has drawn his support mainly from the young and the affluent. He had been considered the candidate most likely to slow the Clinton juggernaut. But her lead in national polls has widened. Nationally, Clinton leads Obama 38% to 22%, according to the latest Pollster.com aggregation of surveys. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is under 14%. The latest campaign reports showed that in the last three months, Clinton for the first time raised more money than Obama.
Still, a Clinton nomination is far from a foregone conclusion. In Iowa, whose voters are first in the nominating process, the race is effectively a toss-up among Clinton, Obama and Edwards. Many presidential front-runners have been thrown off course by an early upset or by failing to meet the expectations that attach to the leader in national polls. And Clinton is still struggling to allay a concern among many Democrats that she is too polarizing to win the general election.
Her rivals say that national surveys reflect little more than Clinton's high name recognition. They suggest that most voters have yet to focus on alternative candidates.
"This campaign is still at its early stage for voters," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. "The vast majority of voters have not made a decision."
But Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster, says that the long primary contest has given voters unusually extensive exposure to the candidates, and so Clinton's standing is built on more than fame.
"What we are seeing in polls is not a reflection of name recognition," said Penn. "It's a reflection of listening to the candidates."
Yet she also has high negative ratings in some polls. For more than a decade, she has been attacked in a shelfload of books, on countless websites and in repeated direct-mail drives. Her detractors see her as a calculating opportunist with a crisis- ridden past.
Paradoxically, Clinton may be benefiting from that unflattering image as she reintroduces herself.
"If she showed up and doesn't have a horn and tail and speaks clearly and engagingly, people say, 'You know, she's all right,' " said Andrew E. Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire.
Levesque disapproved when Clinton ran for the Senate just as her husband was about to leave the White House. Eventually, however, Levesque became impressed with Clinton's Senate career and with the range of issues Clinton addressed as a presidential candidate.
Levesque also cites a factor that Clinton says she often hears: "I really hoped someday I would live long enough to see a woman as president."
Women, who make up the majority of the Democratic electorate, are a vital part of Clinton's political base. Gallup surveys in August and September found that 51% of women aged 18 to 49 supported Clinton, compared with 29% supporting Obama and 10% Edwards. Among older women, the gap in Clinton's favor was even greater.
Taking nothing for granted, the Clinton campaign has aggressively targeted women. A weekly "HillGram" sent to tens of thousands of potential supporters, for instance, deals with such issues as breast cancer, equal pay for equal work and other topics of interest to female voters. The campaign also holds events at venues tailored to women, including a national hairdressers' convention in Boston and children's play centers around the country.
And Clinton's signature issue -- healthcare -- is a big draw for many women.
"It's a problem for a lot of people's families," said Melanie Sowa, 40, a South Carolina homemaker who supports Clinton because of her gender as well as her pledge to make healthcare more affordable and accessible.