Donald Lambro

The conventional wisdom among the political pundits is that the Democrats have a strong advantage in next year's presidential election because of the Iraq war and President Bush's unpopularity.

But there are reasons why the conventional wisdom may be wrong, or least very premature. Not only are the Democratic front-runners burdened by some heavy disadvantages, the Republican presidential race is taking a number of surprising twists and turns that may trump the Democrats' bid at several strategic levels in this accelerated 2008 campaign cycle. Let's take these one at a time.

The Democrats' top-tier contenders:

It doesn't get much attention in the news, which is all polls, pretension and self-promotion at this point, but the Democrats' front-runners come with a lot of troubling baggage of their own making.

Let's start with Sen. Hillary Clinton's surprisingly early decline in the polls among Democratic voters. A Fox News survey of registered voters showed her support falling to 34 percent, down from 43, at the hands of a rookie candidate, freshman Sen. Barack Obama. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News polls shows Obama nearly within single digits of the former first lady.

She is still the front-runner, but she has the highest unfavorables of any major candidate in her party. Nearly half of all voters would not consider voting for her under any circumstances. Negatives this high underscore why her support has been eroding as Democrats question her electability. Key Democrats say privately that she may not be the nominee of her party.

But if Hillary has a severe likeability deficit, young Barack Obama has an even larger problem. Will voters put someone in charge of the country with little or no executive or legislative experience, with only two years on the job? Former North Carolina senator John Edwards, also just a freshman, suffers from the same weakness.

The surprising new direction in the Republican presidential race:After two decades of conservative dominance, Republicans could well choose former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani as their nominee. He poses huge problems for the party's social-conservative wing, but his meteoric rise in the GOP's presidential-preference polls has made him the clear front-runner.

The GOP race is still open, but with Sen. John McCain going down the tubes faster than you can say Howard Dean, and Mitt Romney still having to show he can break out of single digits, Republicans seem to be on the brink of breaking with their past -- choosing a candidate who is a rock-rib conservative on defense and economic issues, but moderate to liberal on social issues.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.