NEW YORK - Call it the front-runner's paradox. While Hillary Rodham Clinton tops every national poll of likely 2008 Democratic presidential contenders, the New York senator is dogged by questions of "electability" - political code for whether she can win enough swing states to prevail in a general election.
It's a gauge typically applied to Democrats, as few question the crossover appeal of the GOP front-runner, Arizona Sen. John McCain. And for activists eager to recapture the White House after eight years of George W. Bush, electability remains a crucial yardstick by which Clinton, especially, seems to be measured.
Clinton began discussions last week with fellow New York lawmakers about her White House prospects and met Sunday with the state's Democratic governor-elect - all indications she is stepping up plans to join a growing field of potential contenders for 2008.
But some Democrats still believe the odds are against her actually being elected president. Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party not aligned with any presidential hopeful, is among the nay-sayers.
"She's a senator, she'd be the first woman running, and she's Hillary Clinton," he said. "All of that is almost insurmountable for a general election."
He added: "There are people who would write a check and die for her, but there are plenty of others who wouldn't vote for her if she promised to eliminate the income tax and give free ice cream to everyone. People have made up their minds about her, and that doesn't give her much room to maneuver."
Clinton has not yet declared she plans to seek the presidency, and aides say the question of whether she can win tops the list of considerations. She's also said she is eager to return to the Senate, where, come January, she'll be a member of the new Democratic majority.
"Hillary Clinton has a good sense of self," said Chris Lehane, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked in the White House for President Clinton. "I don't think she makes this race unless she thinks she has a pretty good chance of winning the whole thing."
On Sunday, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh said he would form a presidential exploratory committee to assess his chances, while Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack declared his candidacy last week. Other Democrats weighing a presidential run in 2008 include Illinois Sen. Barack Obama; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee; and Kerry's 2004 running mate, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
Hillary Clinton enjoys several advantages. She has millions in the bank and a topflight team of advisers. She was handily re-elected to a second term in the Senate, winning even the most conservative areas of her adopted home state of New York. And her husband is the Democratic Party's best campaign strategist and biggest fundraising draw.
But analysts say there are other, significant downsides to a Clinton candidacy.
Despite her centrist six-year Senate voting record, Clinton's reputation remains deeply rooted in her polarizing eight years as first lady. Skeptics say she may still be too liberal for many voters, who recall her husband's scandal-plagued presidency and her own audacious effort to reform the nation's health care system. And no one knows how her status as the first serious female candidate would play out.
"Everyone knows Hillary Clinton can raise the money and that she has a good team, but it's mitigated by all the mumbling that she's not electable," said Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's upstart 2004 presidential campaign.
That year, Dean lost the electability sweepstakes - and the Democratic nomination - to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who then lost to Bush in the general election.
In Clinton's case, so persistent have been the concerns about her prospects for victory in a general election that this summer, two of her top advisers attacked the matter head on.
"We've heard all this 'Hillary can't win' stuff before,'" strategist James Carville and longtime pollster Mark Penn wrote in The Washington Post, referring to Clinton's first Senate race in New York in 2000. That year, she defeated Republican Rep. Rick Lazio by 12 percentage points.
Penn and Carville also argued that Clinton's popularity with women voters could tip a number of swing states her way. In her landslide re-election victory last month, Clinton won 73 percent of the women's vote, compared with 61 percent of men's.
"Certainly she could win the states John Kerry did," they wrote. "But with the pathbreaking possibility of this country's first female president ... states that were close in the past, from Arkansas to Colorado to Florida to Ohio, could well move to the Democratic column."
Some observers even suggest that doubts about Clinton's electability could ultimately play to her advantage - lowering expectations for her initially while casting a harsher light on her opponents.
"Everyone is looking at how she compares to McCain, and that will help her in the long term, because he hasn't been tested the way she has," Lehane said, noting that Clinton already runs about even or just slightly behind McCain in most polls.