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.
"Her negative ratings are higher than those of her husband, former President Clinton, former President George H.W. Bush and 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry at the end of their campaigns," said Associated Press political writer Ron Fournier, a veteran of many presidential elections.
"A candidate's unfavorability scores almost always climb during campaigns. If the pattern holds, Clinton has a historically high hurdle to overcome," Fournier reported last week.
But more is at stake here than just the presidential race, Democrats said. A weak nominee at the top of the ticket can threaten the party's candidates further down the ballot.
Earlier this year, Markos Moulitsas, whose fiery liberal political blog, Daily Kos, is widely read by Democratic Party activists, said Democrats were increasingly concerned about whether Clinton would hurt the party's other candidates in competitive congressional battleground races if she led the party's ticket.
"Hillary would be a drag on races lower on the ballot. In fact, her potential nomination is already creating all sorts of headaches for Senate and House recruitment efforts in tough states and districts," he wrote.
"This is a dynamic not at play with any of the other serious candidates," he said.
Writing in the National Journal late last month, reporter Marc Ambinder said, "Some Democrats fret about state legislators in marginal districts" if Hillary is the nominee. "And several freshman members of Congress have told their political consultants they're not quite sure what impact Clinton will have."
Another huge manifestation of her weakness as a candidate is in the head-to-head matchups with Republican front-runners. She runs behind or about even with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in a wartime climate that is supposed to be favorable to Democrats.
Helping Giuliani to overcome a negative environment for Republicans is a favorability rating of 55 percent and a low unfavorable score of 32 percent, according to a Gallup Poll released Aug. 10.
These numbers suggest that Democrats are not running away with this election, that their front-runner still has huge political obstacles to overcome and that Democrats have a lot of soul-searching to do before they choose who will lead them in next year's election.