Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- If Republicans picked a theme song to describe the gloomy political climate they face this year, it would be "Raindrops 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, and 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 more than $100 a barrel; food prices climbed higher; and economists say the country faces a serious bout of inflation following the Fed's 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 that Americans will vote Democratic this year by wide margins.

Still, there may be a silver lining in those dark clouds up ahead. No one doubts the 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 a 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 fight between their campaigns that shows no sign of ending anytime soon, perhaps not until the August convention in Denver, Colo., where a small cabal of Democratic superdelegates will choose the nominee.

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

-- Obama's admission that he had attended 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 -- and his inexplicable eagerness to remain faithful to the incendiary minister for so many years.

-- Clinton's wildly exaggerated foreign-policy-experience claims that she helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and dodged sniper bullets while landing at a Bosnia airport, focusing new attention on her propensity to embellish and exaggerate the truth.

"It's 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," Zogby said.

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

"At the same time, Clinton was down five or six points last month, and by my polls, she's still down 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 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.

McCain was leading 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.

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

Particularly remarkable in McCain's early-spring lead: He was running ahead of Obama in key battleground states in Pennsylvania (by two points), Ohio (by seven points) and Florida (by nearly seven points), according the Real Clear Politics Web site that tracks all the polls.

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

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

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

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.