Donald Lambro

If a strong majority of Americans are opposed to the Iraq war, which no one disputes, then why are the voters evenly divided between the Republican and Democratic presidential front-runners?

One would think that mounting opposition to the war and President Bush's handling of it would be driving the presidential polls, and that all of the top Republican contenders -- who fiercely back the war -- would be struggling to overcome lopsided Democratic support.

But that's not the case at all. Not only do polling numbers show the GOP's candidates are quite competitive against the Democrats, they are leading them in some surveys.

This is the inherent political contradiction that appears to be shaping up nearly 18 months before the 2008 presidential election takes place. Bush's approval polls are in the 30s, owing largely to the war, and voters rate the Democratic Party much more favorably than the Republicans (52 percent to 40 percent in the Gallup Poll). But neither party appears to have an advantage in the race for the White House.

This is a troubling early-warning sign for the Democrats and for the candidates who have risen to the top of their list of prospective nominees. "A major cautionary note for the Democrats at this point in the election cycle is the disparity between Americans' partisan preferences for the next president in the abstract and their preferences between specific candidates being offered up to the voters," Gallup said in an analysis last week.

When asked, for example, to choose between the two front-runners, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, voters are split right down the middle. In some surveys, like a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, Giuliani led Clinton 51 percent to 46 percent.

Head-to-head national matchups between other front-runner candidates by other independent polling firms reported similar results. For instance, Arizona Sen. John McCain, a fire-breathing war supporter, was tied with Sen. Barack Obama in a recent Time poll. And McCain was in a statistical dead heat with Clinton in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

All of this opens up an unexpected opportunity for the Republicans that few political analysts envisioned at the start of the two-year election cycle and raises this possibility: The war in and of itself may not be enough to return the Democrats to power.

"It is an apparent contradiction. The explanation lies in the difference between the approval and disapproval of one president versus a comparison of two different candidates," said Georgia Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.