WASHINGTON -- One of the most intriguing and persistent questions of the 2008 presidential race is this: Why isn't Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, running away with it?
President Bush remains unpopular among the electorate at large. Polls show a majority of Americans are opposed to the war in Iraq. Democrats beat Republicans in all of the generic surveys and seem poised to make further gains in Congress next year. A bleak political environment appears deeply anti-Republican.
But if all this is true, why, then, is Clinton in a dead heat with Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani? Something is going on here that Gallup and the other pollsters aren't picking up.
At the beginning of this month, a nationwide Quinnipiac University poll found that Giuliani led the liberal New York senator by a razor-thin 45 percent to 43 percent. The same poll, however, said voters believed by 58 percent to 37 percent that Bush's low-approval ratings made it difficult for any Republican to win the White House next year.
National polls, like the stock market, rise and fall with the mood of the American people at any given moment. Besides, we don't elect presidents by a national popular vote but state by state -- and Clinton has the edge in a lot of key battlegrounds in the Midwest that will likely decide the outcome.
Still, the closeness of the race at this early juncture suggests that there are some serious problems with Clinton's candidacy and -- more to the point -- with her personally.
It also suggests that if she is the nominee of the Democratic Party, the Republicans have a better-than-even chance of defeating her and holding on to the presidency for another four years -- despite the hostility toward the GOP.
The biggest obstacle to Clinton's election is her unpopularity among the voters at large. There is something about her that they do not like. Gallup found that just as many voters disapprove of her as like her. Quinnipiac said her favorability/unfavorability score fell from 48 percent/43 percent in August to 46 percent/46 percent today.
The fact is that she has the highest unfavorable scores of any candidate among the front-runners in either party, and nothing she has said or done in the past year has fundamentally changed that.
When about half the electorate says it definitely could not vote for a candidate under any circumstance whatsoever, that obviously raises serious questions about her electability -- questions that her party doesn't want to face, judging from her strength in the early party primaries.
But those questions are being asked in Iowa where Clinton's closest rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, has stepped up his attacks on what he sees as her evasiveness on issues ranging from Social Security to driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. "Changing positions whenever it's politically convenient" is the way Obama puts it.
And the "piling on" in the aftermath of her debate performances -- where her slippery nonanswers have been on display -- isn't coming from just her opponents. The heaviest political fire is from the liberal news media that has turned on her lately.
Politico.com, the widely read election-tracking Web site, said Clinton has "dodged and weaved, parsed and stonewalled," adding for good measure that she "does not say what she means or mean what she says."
Maybe this is why the race in Iowa has narrowed, suggesting that Iowa caucus-goers are having second thoughts about the former first lady and her establishment-sounding message.
Maybe this is why Democratic attack dog James Carville said in a memo to party leaders this month that the candidates' messages lack depth and resonance. "Democrats must become more fully the voice of what is wrong with these times. It is not enough to be anti-Iraq and anti-Bush," Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg warned.
Independent pollster John Zogby also sees the handwriting on the wall. "The question remains: Is she electable? She's pushed on the defensive (because) she waffles," he told me.
Can she lose in the snowy cornfields of the nation's first presidential contest of 2008? "Democrats usually eat their front-runners," Zogby said.
There's another weakness in Clinton's candidacy, apart from whether the voters want to put her husband Bill Clinton back in the White House in a constitutionally dubious role of second in command.
How does the role of first lady in any conceivable way qualify her for the presidency?
It is with good reason that the voters have not chosen a sitting senator to be president since John F. Kennedy. Instead, they have looked to vice presidents and former vice presidents and governors who have had the requisite training, executive responsibilities and experience in high-level assignments.
When you consider the Democratic front-runners, they are a very weak bunch, indeed: a former first lady embroiled in controversy and scandal for much her tenure; a freshman senator with less than three years under his belt and an undistinguished record at that; and John Edwards, a former one-term senator whose principal achievement is making a lot of money as a liability lawyer.
Maybe this why the Democrats are not rolling over the Republicans and why Hillary Clinton is running dead even against a former mayor.