The race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination is heating up. For the first time in the campaign, Hillary Clinton's Democratic rivals believe they have a strategy that could threaten her status as the clear frontrunner for the party's nomination next year. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more on the 2008 presidential race from Washington.

The latest Democratic debate marked a shift in tactics for Hillary Clinton's opponents.

Clinton's rivals are now focused on whether she is the most electable Democrat against the Republicans in next year's election.

Senator Clinton has a big lead in national public opinion polls over her next closest rivals, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

Clinton's Democratic opponents are questioning her stands on Iran, the war in Iraq and immigration in an effort to depict her as an evasive and untrustworthy candidate.

Obama argued in the latest debate that Clinton has become the candidate whom Republicans would love to run against next year. "Part of the reason that Republicans are, I think, obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that is a fight they are very comfortable having," he said.

In the debate, Clinton seemed to contradict herself within minutes on a proposal in New York state to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

Clinton first seemed to embrace the idea, then backed away from it.

John Edwards said Clinton's ambiguous response would leave her open to Republican attacks. "Senator, they actually may want to run against you and that is the reason they keep bringing you up. America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them," he said.

Senator Clinton has also been criticized frequently in the debates involving the Republican presidential contenders, most notably by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "She cannot be trusted. She takes so many different positions. She shifts with the wind," he said.

Clinton sees the Republican attacks as a kind of badge of honor that she would carry forward in the general election next year if she becomes the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. "The Republicans and their constant obsession with me demonstrates clearly that they obviously think that I am communicating effectively about what I will do as president," she said.

Despite her early lead in the polls, Clinton carries some heavy political baggage.

Surveys indicate she is the most polarizing candidate in the race from either party.

"Her unfavorable numbers are equal to her favorable, 46 to 46 percent. Now that says that if she is nominated, and there is a similar pattern with Giuliani, though not so dramatic, that there are a lot of people who do not like her," said Maurice Carroll, who directs polling at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

That concern has caused some Democrats to question her electability should she become the party nominee next year.

"Her negatives are very high, and so even though she is doing incredibly well, a lot of Democrats are saying, yes, but can she beat a Republican? And so in Iowa, if there is any doubt about her invincibility, it will at least allow for another discussion among Democrats before they go and vote in the primaries about this," said Steffen Schmidt, a political expert at Iowa State University. Iowa will begin the nominee selection process for both parties on January 3.

Senator Clinton says she is taking nothing for granted as she campaigns in Iowa and other early voting states. "Nobody has come to a caucus yet. Nobody has cast a vote yet. And I am doing everything I can to earn the support of Iowans," she said.

Clinton's feistiness and willingness to stand up and rebut political attacks could also be an advantage for her as she courts Democratic voters in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, especially women.

"They certainly want someone who can weather the attacks that are coming from the Republican Party. And I think the fact that Clinton has been the focus of so many attacks over so many years gives Democratic voters the sense that she is battle ready," said Dante Scala, a political expert at the University of New Hampshire.

Although Clinton has a big lead in national polls among Democrats, the margins are much smaller in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.