Not long ago, the coventional wisdom about frontrunners John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton was that McCain looked strong in the general election but would have trouble winning his party's nomination, while HRC would sweep to victory among Democrats but couldn't win the presidency because of her high negatives.
But increasingly, that conventional wisdom is being stood on its head. McCain's path to the nomination looks clearer than ever. With George Allen and Bill Frist out of the race, and Mitt Romney attacked as a flip-flopper, conservatives lack a clear champion and might scatter their support among the likes of Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee and Frank Keating. Others seem to be making their peace with John McCain. Even Rudy Giuliani's circle of advisors (which doesn't seem quite ready for prime time) understands that he has some potentially fatal problems. Newt Gingrich could run, but his high negatives would probably cause the party establishment to rally around McCain even more.
However McCain no longer looks like such a clear favorite for the general election. Recent polls show him running behind or only even with Hillary. (And ask yourself, whose image is more likely to change for the worse over the next year -- McCain's or Hillary's). He will be weighed down by two four-letter words: Bush and Iraq. McCain increasingly seems like Bush's candidate (who would thunk it a year or two ago?), but Bush is as unpopular as he's ever been. He's not likely to get any more popular when he announces a policy supported by barely 1 in 5 Americans. By 2008, "Bush fatigue" may be far too mild a term to describe the mood of Democrats and Independents. Outside of the White House and the offices of the Weekly Standard, McCain is perhaps the last true believer in the Iraq War. It's hard to imagine it not hurting him terribly. Plus at 72, he would be 12 years older than Hillary, 17 years older than Edwards, and 25 (!) years older than Obama. For what it's worth, my students think he's showing his age.
Meanwhile, Hillary looks better and better in the general. Not only does she run better against McCain than most people would've ever imagined, but the "generic vote" shows Democrats running 20 points or so ahead of Republicans in the 2008 presidential race. Right now, the country wants a Democratic president. 2008 could be like 1968 or 1980, a year when voters are so fed up with the incumbent party that they are willing to take a chance on a candidate about whom they have serious doubts. The history of political parties whose sitting president had an approval rating in the 30s is not a happy one. Hillary could easily win.
But she has lost her "prohibitive favorite" among Democrats. Her lead in national polls has dwindled, John Edwards tops most surveys in Iowa, and Barack Obama has all the buzz. Both candidates should be able to put together credible campaigns, and neither faces obvious obstacles like those facing Giuliani among Republicans. The three stars should hog the spotlight, preventing the emergence of other candidates (Richardson, Clark, Biden) who could divide the anti-Hillary vote (and produce a situation like the "McCain and the Midgets" scenario that could emerge in the GOP). Hillary's still the favorite, but primus inter pares, not Queen of the Hill.