- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

If Republicans picked a theme song to describe the gloomy political climate they face this year, it would be “Rain Drops Keep Falling On My Head.”

With Americans at war in Afghanistan and Iraq and the economy tilting toward recession, it is hard to imagine the election year environment can get any bleaker for the GOP, though that seemed to be the case this week.

The consumer confidence index plunged deeper, as the jobs picture grew darker, gas prices continued to rise, up to $4 a gallon in places. The housing market, despite a rise in existing home sales last month, remains in a slump. Oil prices were above $100 a barrel, food prices climbed higher and economists say the country faces a serious bout of inflation following the Fed interest rate cuts and the declining dollar.

Fearing the worst, nearly 30 House Republicans have announced their retirement so far, threatening their party with further losses, the Democrats’ House and Senate campaign committees are outraising the GOP, and generic election polls find Americans will vote Democratic this year by wide margins.

Still, there may be a silver lining in those dark clouds. No one doubts Republicans are running against strong head winds, but it begs the question, If things are this bad, why aren’t Democrats trouncing John McCain in the presidential preference polls?

Despite an pessimistic and unhappy electorate, the Arizona senator — the war’s biggest supporter who says he still has a lot to learn about economics — has edged ahead of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the national head-to-head polls.

The reason: voter alienation over the bitter, divisive Barack vs. Clinton fight that shows no sign of ending anytime soon, perhaps not until the August convention in Denver where a small cabal of superdelegates will choose the nominee.

Worse, both candidates have seen their credibility tarnished on several fronts:

c Mr. Obama’s admission that he had attended the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church for 20 years but had never heard him spew the anti-white hatred that has recently come to light in some of his sermons.

c And Mrs. Clinton’s wildly exaggerated foreign policy experience claims that she had helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and dodged sniper bullets while landing at a Bosnia airport — both of which were made up out of whole cloth.

“It has been a bad couple of weeks for the Democrats, with Obama and Hillary continuing to snipe at each other, beginning the process of a thousand cuts,” independent pollster John Zogby told me. “What a difference a month makes and it’s only March. It’s not looking bright for the Democrats,” he said.

“For Obama, it’s his problems with the white vote, which we saw in Ohio, and problems with the Wright story, and that’s reflected in national polls when a month ago Obama was leading McCain by 6 or 7 points, and this month is down by 6. That’s a big swing,” the veteran election pollster said.

“At the same time, Clinton was down by 5 or 6 points last month and by my polls she’s still down by about the same. Both Democrats are experiencing a problem, at least for the moment, among independents, moderates and swing voters. It’s pretty safe to say they can’t win in November unless they get those groups back,” he said.

Other independent polls where Mr. McCain was matched up against the two rivals painted a similarly gloomy picture for the Democrats and gave the Republicans some reason to be more optimistic about their chances in the general election. Mr. McCain was leading Mr. Obama by 49 percent to 41 percent in the latest Rasmussen tracking poll, 47 percent to 44 percent in the Gallup poll, and 44 percent to 43 percent in the Fox News poll.

Mrs. Clinton trailed Mr. McCain by 41 percent to 51 percent in the Rasmussen poll, by 45 percent to 48 percent in the Gallup survey, but led in the Fox News numbers 46 percent to 43 percent.

Particularly remarkable in Mr. McCain’s early spring lead: He was ahead of Mr. Obama in key battleground states in Pennsylvania (2 points), Ohio (7 points) and Florida (by 6.8 points), according the Real Clear Politics Web site that tracks all the polls.

He either led or was statistically tied with Mrs. Clinton in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and had edged ahead of her by 4 points in a Democratic PPP poll in Florida.

So something else is influencing this election, besides the weakening economy and Iraq. Swing voters, especially independents, are closely examining the two bickering Democratic candidates and don’t like what they see:

(1) Hillary, whose campaign admits she didn’t dodge bullets during travels as first lady, as she claimed in several speeches, focusing new attention on her propensity to embellish and exaggerate the truth.

(2) And Mr. Obama’s inexplicable eagerness to remain faithful to a minister for so many years, despite a reputation for racially incendiary rhetoric.

Mr. McCain, for the time being, is running a steady-as-she-goes campaign, betting the economy is likely to turn upward in the last half of the year and that, in the end, the divided Democrats will defeat themselves.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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