The latest public opinion polls suggest U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton is widening her lead for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination next year. In the first of a series of reports on the 2008 presidential election, VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports that many Democrats and political experts are beginning to wonder if anything or anyone can stop Clinton's march to the nomination.

The latest Gallup poll had Clinton at 50 percent, followed by Senator Barack Obama of Illinois at 21 percent and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina at 13 percent. The five other Democratic contenders trail well behind.

Clinton's lead in the polls has grown in recent months, as the pace of the campaign begins to accelerate.

"Well, if you are ready for change, I am ready to lead, and this country is desperate for leadership," she said.

Most political experts say Clinton appears well on her way to the Democratic Party nomination, even though the selection process will not begin until early January.

"At the moment, it is a very skillful campaign, and if it keeps up, she will be the nominee," said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington. "Her numbers have not dropped. They have, in fact, gotten larger over the course of the campaign."

"She is very disciplined and solid on the campaign trail," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington.  "She has an enormous lead in the polls, and she has almost universal name recognition. And, I think, there is an increasing clamor in the country to see a woman nominated as president."

Clinton has improved her poll numbers in some of the early presidential contest states, as well. She leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that traditionally begin the nominee selection process for both major political parties in January.

"You see a much more stable race," said Dante Scala, an expert on the New Hampshire primary at the University of New Hampshire. "You have got Hillary Clinton with a wide lead at this point, and what has been surprising to me is how well the Clinton campaign has weathered the rigors of being the frontrunner."

Despite her formidable lead in the polls, Hillary Clinton remains a polarizing figure in national politics.

Some Democrats worry that independent voters and moderate Republicans will be reluctant to support her if she becomes the Democratic nominee.

Expert Stephen Wayne says some of Clinton's Democratic rivals have raised this concern during the campaign.

"To campaign on the fact that she is the only Democrat who might not be electable -"She has very high negatives [approval ratings], fairly or unfairly, and if the Democrats want a winner, they should stick with someone who does not have those high negatives.' I do not think that is going to be a very appealing argument for Democratic activists," he said.

Clinton has been able to fend off a strong challenge from Senator Obama, a relative newcomer to the national political stage. Obama has been Clinton's equal in fundraising, and is trying to appeal to Democrats searching for a fresh face in 2008.

"Barack Obama, who is in second place in the polls, has sparked a lot of enthusiasm and done extremely well in fundraising, but he has yet to give the American people a solid rationale as to why they should reject Hillary Clinton," said Historian Allan Lichtman. "And, I think, there is a feeling that he may not be quite ready, and that he is a future, rather than a present presidential candidate."

Lichtman says Clinton has angered some anti-war Democrats by not promising an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq if she is elected. But Lichtman also says disputes among the Democratic contenders over Iraq and U.S. relations with Iran are not likely to threaten Clinton's chances of winning the nomination.

"I think she certainly has some vulnerability with respect to liberal Democratic base voters when it comes to her policy on Iraq and Iran," he said. "But without going relentlessly negative, it is going to be very difficult for any of her rivals to exploit that, and, at this point, none of them seem quite ready to wage a mostly negative campaign."

There is polling evidence that Democrats may be willing to rally around Clinton as the Democratic candidate best able to counter Republican attacks in the general election.

"Democrats up here in New Hampshire are as aggressive and hungry for more victories than they have been since I have been up here," said University of New Hampshire expert Dante Scala.  "And so, I think they are looking for who can carry the banner the best."

Despite Clinton's apparent strength, experts caution it would be foolish to declare a winner before the primaries and caucuses even begin.

In 2004, Howard Dean was the early Democratic frontrunner, but his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire evaporated in a matter of weeks, and John Kerry quickly surged to the party nomination.

Democrats will formally nominate their candidates for president and vice-president at their national convention in late August in Denver, Colorado.

In our next installment, VOA national correspondent Jim Malone looks at where the candidates stand in the campaign for the Republican nomination.