TIME Poll: Hillary vs. McCain?

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(l. to r.) Alex Wong / Getty; Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

Senators John McCain (left) and Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton is the clear front-runner to win the Democratic Party's nomination for President in 2008, but the Republican race will be a close contest between Senator John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani — with McCain edging Giuliani by a three- to four-point margin. And a presidential face-off between Clinton and McCain, right now, would be close to a dead heat. Those are some of the key findings of a new TIME poll earlier this week that canvassed a random sample of 1,064 registered voters by phone.

Despite the buzz generated by Senator Barack Obama entering the race, the survey found that Senator Clinton would beat him for the Democratic nomination by a margin of 40% to 21%. Senator John Edwards is a distant third with 11%. Obama clearly suffers a disadvantage in profile among likely voters, with only 51% indicating that they knew enough about him to form an opinion, compared with 94% saying the same of Hillary Clinton. In Obama's favor, however, is his far lower negative ratings. While 58% of voters familiar with Hillary Clinton have a positive view of her, 41% give her negative marks, for a net favorability score of +17. By contrast, Obama's net favorability score is +47. On the Republican side, Giuliani has a net favorability rating of +68, with only 14% having a negative view of him. McCain's net favorability score is +45.

McCain, however, holds a narrow lead of 30% to 26% over Giuliani for the G.O.P. nomination. A race between McCain and Clinton would be a virtual tie (47%-47%), according to the poll, while McCain would beat either Obama or Senator John Edwards by a 7-point margin.

Clinton's popularity within her party does not translate as easily across party lines as Obama's does, or indeed as Giuliani's and McCain's. Only 58% of the total sample of respondents had a very or somewhat favorable impression of her, compared with 82% for Giuliani (including 7 out of 10 Democratic voters), and 70% each for Obama and McCain — both of whom showed strongly among independents. These figures must be read against the fact that 94% of respondents said they knew "a great deal" or "some" about Clinton, while 73% said the same of Giuliani and 66% of John McCain. Only 51% knew "a great deal" or "some" about Obama.

If the election were held now, Rudy Giuliani appears to have the support of the greatest number of respondents of both parties, with 56% indicating they would "definitely" or "probably" support him — followed by Hillary Clinton (51%) John McCain (50%) and Barack Obama (50%). But Clinton has a strong edge when the question is which presidential candidate people would most like to have over to their homes for dinner. The former First Lady led the dinner-invitation field with 26%, while Obama and McCain tied for second place at 15%. But with the New Hampshire primaries a year away, the the four leading contenders all have some work to do: Obama in making himself better known, Clinton in making herself better liked, McCain in matching Giuliani's appeal to Democratic voters, and Giuliani in landing more invitations to dinner.