Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Democrats face a potentially disastrous conundrum in the 2008 presidential nominating race: Sen. Hillary Clinton, the front-runner, is the most disliked candidate among her party's contenders.

Despite the strong lead she holds over her closest rivals, the New York senator draws the general electorate's highest negative ratings of anyone in the race, Republican or Democrat, when pollsters ask the voters if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of each candidate.

A Gallup survey conducted from Aug. 3 to Aug. 5 found that 49 percent of the 1,012 Americans they polled said they had an unfavorable opinion of her, while 47 percent were favorable. Gallup asks this question every year and, since March, Clinton's unfavorable numbers have varied little, rising to 52 percent in April, then 50 percent in June, but generally remaining between 48 percent and 49 percent for most of the year.

Other favorable/unfavorable polls show roughly the same results. "The 'Hillary hostility' factor is constant and feeds doubts about whether she can win in November 2008. That polling perennial -- her unfavorability factor -- remains high," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Nearly four months before Democrats troop to their first caucuses and primaries to choose their nominee, they appear to be ready to select Clinton in spite of her unpopularity in the wider electorate. That raises fears among party strategists that, even with the moody political climate offering their party its best chance in years to win back the White House, they may lose the election with a candidate who carries a lot of scandal-ridden baggage from the Clinton years.

"Her disapprovals are the two-ton elephant in the room, but a large part of the party's base seems oblivious to those numbers at this point," one Democratic strategist told me.

Other Democrats express some concern about her high negatives but say she still has time to turn them around.

"People are concerned about her unfavorables, but I think it is way too early to use that as an indicator of what is going to happen in November, should she become the nominee," said Bud Jackson, a Democratic media campaign adviser.

"Right now, these polls are based on what people have already lived through with Hillary Clinton as first lady," Jackson told me. "It's going to be different when she is standing up as the candidate, as opposed to first lady." Still, he added, "I think (the polling numbers) should give you pause, but I don't think it's alarm bells ringing off. There's time and opportunity for Hillary to improve those numbers," he said.

But seasoned campaign reporters say that election history shows that's rarely the case.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.