In the current round of political poker, three players hold strong hands: the Democrats in Congress, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.
Congressional Democrats get the first play: Most Americans call their takeover of Congress a good thing -- more than the number who thought it was a good thing when the Republicans took control in 1994 -- and the Democrats lead George W. Bush in trust to handle a range of issues.
Clinton's and Giuliani's turns are further off. Both hold top spots for their party's 2008 presidential nomination -- but the primary season still could be anybody's game: Most Americans don't know much yet about the political positions of these or any of the other top competitors.
CONGRESS -- Fifty-five percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll call the change in control of Congress a good thing, more than the 48 percent who said so after party control shifted in 1994. And the public trusts the Democrats over Bush to handle the country's major problems by a 26-point margin, 57 percent to 31 percent. That represents political capital.
The Democrats' advantage holds across specific issues. They hold a 56 percent to 32 percent lead in trust to handle the public's most pressing concern, Iraq (see 12/12 analysis), a 58 percent to 34 percent advantage in trust to handle the economy, a vast lead on health care (a more traditional Democratic issue), a 14-point advantage on ethics in government, and 15 points on immigration policy.
The Democrats even lead Bush by 50 percent to 41 percent in trust to handle terrorism, long a cornerstone of the Bush presidency, now much diminished as his support has ebbed as a result of broad discontent with the war in Iraq.
A caution for the Democrats is not to overplay their hand. Most Americans say they'd like to see both sides -- Bush and Democrats alike -- work mainly to compromise with each other, rather than to pursue their own agendas. Whether Bush and the Democrats comply will tell the tale of the 110th Congress.
Expectations are up -- but still not great. Forty-three percent think the next Congress will be able to accomplish things. Nevertheless, that's more than the 29 percent who said in October that the last Congress got much done.
FAVES -- The incoming Democratic leaders of the 110th Congress are rated more positively than negatively, though many Americans don't know enough about them to say one way or the other. Forty-six percent have a favorable opinion of speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, 33 percent unfavorable (much better among Democrats, much worse among Republicans, naturally). And 36 percent view incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid favorably, 18 percent unfavorably. The rest have no opinion.
2008 ELECTION -- More familiar are the current front-runners in the 2008 presidential election -- and most popular is former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Two-thirds of Americans view him positively, including six in 10 Democrats, about two-thirds of independents and nearly eight in 10 Republicans -- strong appeal across party lines that could prove critical in a general election, should he make it that far.
Clinton follows in popularity, with 56 percent holding a favorable impression of of the New York senator. At the same time, though, her unfavorable rating -- 40 percent -- is the highest on the list, driven by strongly negative views among Republicans. More than seven in 10 Republicans see Clinton unfavorably, including six in 10 "strongly" unfavorable. More than eight in 10 Democrats view her positively, as do half of independents.
Sen. John McCain has a 50 percent to 31 percent favorable-unfavorable rating -- 10 points worse than his favorability rating during the 2000 election. And the Arizona Republican is viewed favorably by just 44 percent of independents -- down nine points since May.
Just under half, 49 percent, have a favorable impression of former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards; and 44 percent view Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., favorably. But there is plenty of room for improvement: One in four Americans don't yet have an opinion of Edwards, while one-third don't know enough about Obama to say.
Most unfamiliar is Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. A majority of the public -- 54 percent -- hasn't formed an opinion of him. The rest split about evenly.
DEMOCRATS -- With strong name recognition and high favorability within her own party, Clinton holds a big early lead for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Thirty-nine percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they'd vote for her if their state's primary or caucus were held today, far outpacing all other candidates. Obama has 17 percent support, Edwards 12 percent, Gore 10 percent and Kerry 7 percent. Other potential candidates are at 2 percent or less.
It's a closer race among liberal Democrats (excluding independent-leaning Democrats), a core Democratic group more likely to turn out for primaries. Obama comes within 7 percent of Clinton among them, with 26 percent support to Clinton's 33 percent.
Clinton does far better among women than men -- 49 percent of Democratic women support her, compared with just 29 percent of Democratic men. Men are about twice as likely as women to support Edwards -- 17 percent of men do versus 8 percent of women.
Obama, for his part, receives about equal support from non-whites as whites -- 19 and 17 percent, respectively.
Clinton faces the most competition in the Midwest. Twenty-nine percent of Democrats there say they'd vote for her today; 21 percent for Obama. Clinton is supported by about four in 10 Democrats in other regions. And while she has strong leads among less-educated Democrats, those with college degrees split evenly between Clinton and Obama.
REPUBLICANS -- The Republican race is closer. Giuliani holds the edge for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, backed by 34 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. McCain is close behind, with 26 percent support. Newt Gingrich places third, with 12 percent, and Romney fourth, with 5 percent. Other potential candidates receive 3 percent support or less.
There has been speculation that Giuliani is too liberal to get through the Republican primaries. Perhaps surprisingly then, this poll finds 34 percent of conservative Republicans supporting him, while 25 percent back McCain -- essentially the same as among all Republicans. However, it's a closer contest among conservative evangelical white Protestants. Thirty percent of them support McCain, 27 percent Giuliani.
Given this survey's sample size, Giuliani's overall 34 percent to 26 percent advantage over McCain is not statistically significant at the customary 95 percent confidence level. However, there is an 89 percent probability that Giuliani is ahead among this population.
SECOND CHOICE -- With more than a year to go before the primaries begin, much can happen; some potential candidates may not run, or may drop out. Second choices then matter.
Clinton gets the bulk of support from her opponents' initial supporters. Among those who backed one of the other 10 candidates tested in this poll, nearly four in 10 prefer Clinton as an alternative. If Clinton does not run, no one candidate benefits most -- her supporters split between Gore, Kerry and Obama.
On the Republican side, Giuliani and McCain again hold the top spots for second choice, with the bulk of Giuliani supporters backing McCain for second choice, and most McCain supporters opting for Giuliani.
POSITIONS -- But the positions of the potential candidates are little known to the public, underscoring the potential for change as the election draws closer and candidates more fully flesh out their agendas.
Best known is Hillary Clinton -- 45 percent say they know at least a good amount about her positions on specific issues, including half of Democrats. But still, most -- 55 percent -- say they know little or nothing about her positions, and very few know a "great deal."
Just 30 percent know a good amount about McCain's positions, 25 percent about Giuliani's and 20 percent about Edwards' or Obama's positions. A mere 6 percent know a good amount about Romney.
It's not much higher in their own parties. About four in 10 Republicans know about McCain's or Giuliani's positions, about one in four Democrats know about Edwards' or Obama's, and just one in 10 Republicans know where Romney stands on the issues.
ATTRIBUTES -- But Romney, a Mormon, faces deeper difficulties: More than one-third of Americans overall, and 39 percent of Republicans, say they're less likely to vote for a candidate for president who's a Mormon.
Far fewer say they're less likely to vote for a woman -- 14 percent, about as many who say they're more likely to vote for one. Twenty-three percent of women say they're more likely to vote for another woman, compared with 9 percent of men.
Perhaps with Clinton in mind, 38 percent of Democratic women say they'd be more likely to vote for a woman candidate, while 25 percent of Republican women say they'd be less apt to do so. Conservative Republicans are the most likely to say they'd be less apt to vote for a woman for president -- 32 percent say so. Again, Clinton is probably the reason.
Just 7 percent say they'd be less likely to support a black candidate, 9 percent more likely; 84 percent say the candidate's race wouldn't matter.
METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 7-11, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,005 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.