WASHINGTON — There’s the brand, and then there’s the product. At the moment, the Democratic brand is pretty good while the Republican brand is badly scarred. But when it comes to product, Democrats still have a lot of development work to do. As they toil away, Republicans will be working just as hard to soil the Democratic name.

It’s been clear for months that large majorities of Americans have given up on the Republicans. They’ve turned decisively against President Bush and, in principle, want him replaced in 2008 by a Democrat.

But there’s a major gap between the desired outcome and the will to bring it about. The electorate is more pro-Democratic in theory than in practice. And Democratic congressional leaders will have a hellish time changing that, given their narrow margins and President Bush’s possession of a veto pen.

Do not envy House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid their supposed power. It would be easier to manage Bush’s former baseball team, the Texas Rangers (26 wins, 43 losses as of Tuesday morning). Expectations for the Rangers are a lot lower.

Expectations are part of the Democrats’ problem. Over the last month or so, congressional Democrats have hemorrhaged support from both ends of the electoral coalition that backed them last November. And both ends had high hopes.

Democrats won in 2006 because they mobilized their large and angry base in opposition to President Bush and the Iraq war — and because they won over moderates and independents. These voters were frustrated by Bush’s performance, unhappy with their economic circumstances, and angry at the corruption in the last Republican Congress.

Managing this coalition was never going to be easy, and it hasn’t been. Antiwar Democrats are upset that Congress can’t simply end American engagement in Iraq and want Democrats to push their power to the limit.

Middle-of-the-road voters who backed the Democrats don’t much like the war, but they also looked to the party of Reid and Pelosi to get things done on political reform, healthcare, energy, the environment and the economy. Yet the ways of Congress are slow, especially when Republicans have no interest in Democratic success, and when President Bush — with the exception of an immigration bill — mostly opposes what Democrats would put on his desk. The Democrats can brag about a minimum-wage increase. They also passed budget measures on time, a real achievement, but not one that most voters notice.

As a result, a large divide has opened up between attitudes toward the Democratic Party in general and Congress in particular. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken June 8-11 found that 42 percent of voters had a positive view of the Democratic Party and 35 percent a negative view. For Republicans, the numbers were 28 percent positive, 49 percent negative. The old Whigs might do better.

But only 23 percent of Americans approved of Congress’ job performance, down 8 points from April; 64 percent disapproved.

Such numbers have brought forth a torrent of memos from Democrats who know they need to use the summer to make progress on the domestic front before the expected donnybrook over Iraq this fall.

The immigration bill is not particularly helpful to Democrats since it is consuming the limited media attention that comes Congress’ way — and since immigration reform was not part of the Democrats’ core 2006 promises. Here, the interest of congressional Democrats may collide with Bush’s, since immigration is his main domestic priority. Democrats need visible action on other fronts.

The Democrats’ worries about the presidential race are less immediate. But it’s striking that while the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed the public preferring a Democrat to a Republican for president in 2008 by a margin of 52-31 when no specific candidates were listed, public polls have shown much smaller leads — or occasionally, even small deficits — for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama when they were matched individually against Rudy Giuliani or John McCain. Although Clinton, Obama and John Edwards still do well against lesser-known Republican presidential candidates, the performance gap troubles many in the party.

Given how tarnished the Republican brand is, the GOP’s best strategy is to bring Democrats down with them into the murky depths of public disapproval. This might build support for a third-party candidate in 2008 — which could help Republicans win by splitting the anti-Bush, anti-system vote. It’s still early, but not too early for Democrats to worry about this prospect and to brace themselves for some ugly politics for the rest of the year.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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