Hillary may need to break into a sweat after all.
In the wake of Jeanine Pirro's awkward withdrawal from the race, many assumed that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's only re-election challenge would be trying to beat the New York blowout record set by Sen. Chuck Schumer in 2004. But the latest poll by John Zogby indicates that Hillary suddenly has a food fight on her hands.
In his first poll after Pirro dropped out on Jan. 13, Zogby had Hillary ahead of GOP challenger John Spencer by 61 percent to 31 percent. But in his most recent survey, conducted March 27, her margin had fallen to 54-33.
Hillary's drop did not reflect any aggressive paid media push by Spencer. He has yet to run his first ad. Rather, Hillary is losing the key contest of Hillary vs. Hillary - her negatives are rising.
In New York City, she dropped from a 68-19 lead to 62-25. In the suburbs, she fell from 55-36 to 48-41. Upstate, her edge went from 57-38 to 43-42.
Suddenly, it's a race.
Animating Hillary's drop are losses on all ends of the political spectrum. She's down by six points among Democrats, and by 12 with Republcians. But her key falloff is among independents - from 64 percent to 49 percent.
What's the problem? Some on the left may find her too pro-war, while others may be reacting to her newly prominent stridency as a critic of the Bush administraion. After six years of studied moderation and respectful silence, the Hillary Clinton who poured coffee for her fellow senators is now yielding the spotlight to the loud, partisan critic.
And her candidacy for president may be eroding her support in New York. The more visible she is on the national stage and the more she seems to be warming up for a run in 2008, the more some New York voters will feel betrayed.
It is easy now to look back and say that Hillary ran for Senate in 2000 in order to set up a presidential bid. But, in 2000, very few voters would have believed that she was going to run for president.
Whatever the cause, Hillary's drop in popularity means Spencer had better look out. (It's hard to see how K.T. McFarland can stay in the race much longer.) This dose of negative poll data may well prompt the Clinton campaign to dip into her her vast war chest to go on-air with ads. But if Spencer raises the money his current standing in the polls deserves, he'll be able to counter Hillary and erode her lead further.
Eileen McGann co-authored this column.