Steve Chapman

The last couple of months have been springtime in paradise for Republicans: the loveliest of all possible seasons. They have been watching two Democratic presidential candidates in an endless battle to destroy each other -- a process that does not appear to enhance the chance that the eventual nominee will win in November.

A recent Gallup poll shows John McCain leading both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head matchup. All this before Republicans even begin publicizing the worst that can be said about either of two candidates whose alleged defects provide a supremely target-rich environment.

But it's easy to let the individuals involved obscure larger factors that may prove more important. In a hurricane, even handsome, well-built boats can end up underwater. And right now, the GOP looks as though it may be sailing into a perfect storm.

Currently, 69 percent of Americans disapprove of the way President Bush is doing his job. That is the highest disapproval rating since Gallup began polling 70 years ago -- higher than Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon during Watergate, or Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis.

Today, notes polling expert Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, more Americans think the country is on the wrong track than at any time since the late 1970s -- which set the stage for the Republican resurgence of 1980, led by Ronald Reagan. The sentiment is even more negative now than it was in 1992, when the GOP lost the White House. Some 63 percent see the Iraq war as a mistake.

Bush's troubles have sent voters fleeing from his party. In 2004, 47 percent of Americans leaned toward the Democratic Party, with 44 percent leaning Republican -- a 3-point difference. Today, it's 51 to 38 in favor of the Democrats -- a gap of 13 percentage points.

To win, McCain will have to pry away a lot of voters who currently find the GOP unappealing. Obama (or Clinton), by contrast, will have only to avoid alienating those who are already favorably inclined to a change.

Issue after issue also promises to hurt Republicans. Among the topics creating the most anxiety are the economy, domestic matters like health care and immigration, and Iraq. Of those, immigration is the only one that might not favor the Democrats.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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