WASHINGTON — Buoyed by recent polls favoring John McCain to win the White House, Republicans are sharpening their knives while wondering which Democrat would be easier to beat in November.
For months, Republican strategists have delighted over the prospect of facing off with Hillary Clinton, believing that she would be easier to beat than her Democratic rival, Barack Obama.
But things have changed since the Obama campaign was engulfed in controversy over embarrassing statements by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery sermons have been called anti-American.
The former first lady and New York senator is one of the most popular women in the United States but she inspires intense hostility in some quarters.
A poll published in mid-March by the Wall Street Journal said that while 45 percent of Americans hold a positive opinion of Clinton, almost as many -- 43 percent -- dislike her.
In the same poll, 51 percent respondents liked Obama and only 28 percent had a negative view of him.
Then came the Wright affair. The former pastor at a Chicago church Obama attends, Wright is seen as the senator's spiritual mentor. He officiated at Obama's wedding and baptized his two daughters.
But in angry sermons endlessly replayed on television and the Internet, Wright is seen saying that American "terrorism" brought about the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Wright also argues African-Americans should sing "God Damn America" to protest their treatment.
Obama was left to explain the "inexcusable" statements of his former pastor, while polls showed his support sinking.
"The Reverend Wright matter has highlighted the enormous cultural distance between a large share of black Americans, and most white Americans," said James Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland.
"I'm not sure that many white Americans were aware of this distance before, and it has greatly alarmed them," he said.
"Even if the Jeremiah Wright controversy went away tomorrow, it underscores one of Obama's biggest vulnerabilities," said Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist who worked for McCain during his 2000 presidential campaign.
In a recent opinion published in the New York Times, Schnur warned Republicans not to underestimate Clinton as an adversary in November. Obama would be easier for Republicans to beat, he said.
Republicans have been preparing for a general election battle against the Illinois senator, who leads in the Democratic delegate count.
Republican party spokesman Paul Lindsay has said that Republicans will paint him as out of step with American values and inexperienced in foreign and national security affairs.
But Republicans are wrong if they think Obama would be easier to beat, said Eric Davis, a professor of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont.
"Unless Obama's numbers in the polls drop precipitously in the next couple of months, Clinton would have a harder time defeating McCain than Obama," Davis said.
"Clinton will unite the Republican party more than anything John McCain can do," he said, due to Republican animosity toward the former first lady.
On the other hand she would have a hard time uniting Democrats because, if she is nominated, "it will only be because the superdelegates went against the preference of the voters as expressed in the primaries and caucuses," he said.
"I continue to believe that Obama would be the stronger Democratic candidate," Davis said.