WASHINGTON – Pundits and politicos, right up to the president of the United States himself, have lately begun to promote the notion of Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York as the presumptive Democratic nominee for the White House next year.

This emerging line of conventional wisdom is putting pressure on Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Clinton’s other rivals to freeze the idea in its tracks right away, before it takes hold and makes it harder for them to win support.

Those contenders point frequently to the last Democratic primary season, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean enjoyed a healthy early lead but then ran off the tracks after a bruising early loss in Iowa.

“I’m not too worried,” said David Axelrod, a key Obama strategist. “The roadsides of Iowa and New Hampshire are strewn with the spent political carcasses of September and October front-runners.”

The image doesn’t exactly work, under a strict interpretation of the word “carcass.” Historically, most dominant front-runners have usually managed to go on and win the party nomination, including those who had to scrape themselves off the pavement after a loss in an early voting state.

But there are still plenty of historical reasons not to call the race just yet. Many candidates who seemed to be headed for a cakewalk at this point ended up fighting for their candidacies by the time voters went to the polls.

Maybe it’s the name-ID effect, which some political analysts suggest artificially tilts the early polls toward the best-known candidate.

Others, taking a page from market theory, suggest that voters want to see real competition, no matter how much they may like the leader. That may be especially true among the influential voters of the early primary states, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

“New Hampshire, for example, likes to knock the front-runner down. It likes an underdog,” said Lake, who is rooting for an underdog herself in Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. “There’s a Yankee quality here that really likes to reward straight talk, no matter how the person is doing in the polls.”

There’s plenty more than just the Dean experience to suggest the race could become more competitive in months to come. Edmund Muskie was the favorite to win the Democratic nomination in 1972, but a weaker-than-expected showing in New Hampshire – and his public, emotional reaction to negative press coverage in that state – was the beginning of the end for the man from Rumford.

At the least, the historical record indicates that front-runners often stumbled in the early states even if they ultimately recovered. George H.W. Bush finished third in Iowa, despite being the sitting vice president, though he went on to win the Republican nomination and the 1988 election.

George W. Bush lost to John McCain in New Hampshire, but followed his father’s footsteps to the White House anyway. Bill Clinton lost the New Hampshire primary to Paul Tsongas and still became president.

“It’s a rare season in which the front-runner doesn’t at least have a scare, if not an upset in the early going,” said Larry Sabato, author and professor of political science at the University of Virginia. “That doesn’t mean the front-runner won’t be nominated in the end. They can recover. But it’s very rare not to have a setback.”

Some union leaders supportive of other Democratic candidates say the “inevitability narrative” is part of the Clinton sales pitch when her operatives come calling. Even President Bush is reportedly telling people Clinton is a “shoo-in” for the party’s nomination.

“(T)he person with the national presence, who has got the ability to raise enough money to sustain an effort in a multiplicity of sites, has got a good chance to be nominated,” Bush told Bill Sammon, a journalist and author of “The Evangelical President.”

The argument has many points to recommend it. Clinton is leading in polls nationally as well as in some key early voting states. In New Hampshire, for example, a new state poll shows that she has pulled 23 percentage points ahead of Obama, her nearest competitor.

She has a focused and battle-tested campaign operation, which boasts many expert advisers and operatives from the campaigns and administration of her husband, the former president.

But by similar standards, Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards are arguably poised to wage a competitive race. Obama regularly attracts crowds that number in the thousands, most recently holding a rally in New York City that drew more than 20,000 people.

Both Edwards and Obama have racked up some key endorsements. As inevitable as Clinton’s nomination seems to many, some major unions are so divided among the three candidates that they’re holding off on endorsing anyone at all. Last week, for example, the Service Employees International Union decided to put its decision off until at least the first week of October.

And in Iowa, a critical early voting state, polls suggest the three leading Democrats are in a close race. The latest one, from Newsweek, partly favors Clinton, showing her ahead in overall numbers and also with the most voters who characterize their support for a candidate as “strong.”

But Edwards has led the field in some Iowa polls, and the Newsweek poll shows Obama leading among likely caucus-goers. Strategists for both candidates think a strong showing in Iowa could help their campaigns catch fire.

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