Presidential hopefuls from President George W. Bush’s Republican Party have an uphill battle ahead of the 2008 elections, stung by their support for the unpopular Iraq war and outshone by Democratic star power.

Three declared or presumed candidates lead the polls for the more conservative of the two main US political parties, all of them apparently highly qualified: Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Giuliani is often glowingly referred to in US media as “America’s mayor” for his strong leadership in New York in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

McCain is the only senator ever to get Bush to change course on a key issue, on torture, and Romney is a successful businessman and governor of Democratic-leaning Massachusetts.

But the lineup does not pack the attention-grabbing punch of a Democratic field crowded with potentially historic “firsts” in the presidency: Hillary Clinton, a woman; Barack Obama, an African-American; and Bill Richardson, an Hispanic.

Also grabbing the limelight is telegenic lawyer John Edwards, a former senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate.

The Republicans are feeling the bite of a widespread belief that 2008 is going to be the Democrats’ year to win back the White House. The Democrats wrested control of Congress for the first time in 12 years in a November election hinged on voter discontent with the Iraq war.

It is rare for the same party to win three presidential races in a row, and “when George W. Bush presents (voters) with an unpopular war, it’s a high hill to climb,” said Stephen Hess, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

And Giuliani, McCain and Romney, who are competing for core Republican voters’ support, have no choice but to defend their party’s recent legacy, including the Iraq war.

“The core of the party is for George W. Bush, and it’s pretty hard to run away from his record,” said Hess.

None of the three Republican frontrunners, at least, has been cast as the heir apparent of Bush. That is a blessing in this race, with Bush’s sagging popularity.

“It’s the first time since 1964 that there hasn’t been an heir apparent,” said Allan Lichtman, an expert at American University.

Bush, after being elected president twice, is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection. Vice President Dick Cheney has insisted he would not run for president in 2008.

Giuliani, the ex-New York mayor who, like Romney, has declared his candidacy, has never been affiliated with the federal government or Bush’s administration.

But he is significantly less conservative than Bush, which could alienate the evangelical Christian support base the party enjoys.

Says Hess: “It’s a long way between (liberal) Manhattan and (conservative) Charleston,” South Carolina.

McCain, an Arizona senator, has sought to cast himself as a bit of a maverick and distance himself from Bush, but he supported Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign and his decision to send more troops into Iraq.

Larry Sabato, an expert at the University of Virginia, said “the maverick image is never popular among Republicans.”

McCain, a Vietnam War veteran who has spoken out against torture and the nominations of ultraconservative judges, has trailed in the polls at about 24 percent.

Romney, who has drawn just five-percent support in polls, may soon battle back from his relatively less well-known status: he has just signed on a top-flight campaign team.

Yet the fact he is Mormon, analysts say, is viewed with suspicion by many evangelical Christians who also question how closely he has stood by his conservative values in the governorship of Massachusetts, a mostly liberal state.

Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse

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