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WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton would enter the 2016 presidential race better liked and more respected than she was when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008, a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll finds.

By more than 2-1, 42%-17%, those surveyed say her involvement in Bill Clinton's administration would be an asset rather than a liability if she sought the White House again. Four in 10 say her ties to him wouldn't make a difference in the campaign.

"She's in as strong a position as any potential nominee for an open-seat race in modern history," says David Axelrod, a top strategist for Barack Obama in the 2008 nomination battle she lost. "I can't remember any like it."

To be sure, Hillary Clinton continues to spark strong negative reactions as well as positive ones. While 51% say they'd like her to run for president in 2016 (including three of four Democrats), 43% say they hope she doesn't. Just 7% don't have an opinion, an indication of how well-known and sharply viewed she is after more than two decades in the public eye.

If she runs for president in 2016, 38% say there is no chance they would vote for her. Nearly as many, 35%, say there is a good chance they would support her. Another 24% say there is "some chance" they would vote for her.

The poll of 1,002 adults, taken Thursday through Sunday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

MORE: The Road to 2016

Clinton's tenure as secretary of State during President Obama's first term has burnished her reputation and softened some of her rough edges, the survey indicates. Two-thirds approve of the job she did at the State Department, including 44% of Republicans and those who lean to the GOP — a remarkably high approval rating given today's polarized politics. In comparison, Obama's job-approval rating was 43% in the most recent USA TODAY/Pew Research Center poll.

Her experience at the State Department and in foreign policy was the item most often named in response to an open-ended question about the most positive thing from her career. However, an incident late in her tenure, the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, was the item most often cited when respondents were asked to name the most negative thing.

That question made clear the degree to which Bill Clinton continues to affect perceptions of his wife. The second-ranking positive item mentioned was the way Hillary Clinton dealt with her husband during the Monica Lewinsky affair, which led to his impeachment. But Bill Clinton also was the second-ranking negative item.

Still, the negative impact of her association with Bill Clinton has eased significantly over the past six years. In January 2008, one in three said her ties with his administration would hurt her campaign. That percentage has been cut nearly in half in thinking about her new potential candidacy. Even among Republicans, only one in four now see that as a negative factor for her.

Impressions of Hillary Clinton's personal traits have improved since April 2008, when she was a senator from New York running in Democratic presidential primaries. Now, the registered voters surveyed:

• Are less likely to say she is "hard to like." Then, 53% said she wasn't likable; now 57% say that description doesn't apply to her.

• Are more likely to describe her as honest. Then, 51% said that trait didn't describe her; now 54% say it does.

• Are slightly less likely to describe her as tough, though that is still a dominant view. Then 76% called her tough; now 69% do.

Fewer describe her as someone who has new ideas. By 49%-40%, those surveyed say that trait applies to her.

Americans are inclined to think the fact that she is a woman wouldn't make a difference in her campaign; 44% hold that view. A third predict her gender would help her, and one in five say it would hurt.

That's a turnaround from January 2008, when a Pew poll found Americans inclined to believe that her gender would be a detriment to her political ambitions. Then just over a third said the fact that she was a woman would hurt if she was the Democratic nominee; one in four said it would help.

Then there's her age. Now 66, she would be 69 on Inauguration Day 2017; only Ronald Reagan was older when elected to his first term. Asked how old Hillary Clinton is, Americans guessed an average age (both the median and the mean) of 60.

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