I'S OFT BEEN said that only Democrats know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

A quasi-joke I used to make is that from my time on Capitol Hill, I had a collection of bumper stickers that said "Speaker Gephardt" - from 1998, 2000 and 2002. I remember sitting up watching Democrats unable to decisively beat George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, empty beer bottles and bags of chips around me, as my friends had long abandoned the "victory" party.

After 2006, when Democrats took a brief pause to actually stop bickering and run a unified campaign, they're back to their old ways again. The numbers don't lie.

Rasmussen Report's daily tracking polls from the past week show a Democratic victory slip-sliding away, little noticed by the media consumed with the daily potshots, and those cable pundits who maintain that a divisive race is good for the Democrats (not a surprising stance since a divisive primary keeps the ratings up).

Yep, don't look now, but John McCain has now become wildly more acceptable to most voters, with 55 percent seeing him favorably, and 41 percent seeing him unfavorably.

That's a huge one-month turnaround, from 47-50 favorable/unfavorable. At the same time, Hillary Clinton has remained more unfavorable than favorable, apparently unable to convince voters at large to think of her more positively than when the race began. But Barack Obama has steadily turned less popular in the face of attacks from the Clinton campaign, going from 52-45 favorable-unfavorable to 50-49.

But that's not all. McCain, who narrowly beat Clinton in a general election matchup but lost to Barack Obama, is now beating each of them, and his trend lines are only going up. McCain scores a 46-43 win over Clinton, and a 47-43 win over Obama.

This finding was matched by pollster John Zogby, who now has Clinton losing to McCain 45-39, and Obama down 44-39 against McCain.

That's just the popular vote. Let's not forget the electoral college, since, for better or worse, that's what determines things.

Democrats are crumbling there, too, in the trend lines.

They've have gone from a solid 284 electoral votes for Democrats to 247. And, while that's better than the 229 that the GOP now has in the poll, things look worse by the day, a month ago, there were only 38 electoral votes considered a true toss-up.

Now, there's 62 toss-up electoral votes, mostly taken from states that were previously said to "lean Democrat," while the GOP has increased its number of "lean GOP" and "likely GOP" electoral votes.

What does this all mean? Is the election over, and time for all Democrats to stick their heads in the oven?

Hardly. These trends can be reversed. But every day this primary goes on, the steeper the hill Democrats have to climb in the general. In short, while a win is far from impossible, it becomes a less possible with every day this primary marathon is allowed to drag on.

Democratic politicians, trying not to look nonplussed, have said that everything will turn out fine, that the party will unite for the general election - and win.

It's a good talking point, but if any Democrat sincerely believes that, and thinks serious damage isn't being done by letting this contest drag on week after week after week, they're whistling past the graveyard.

The fact is, if Pennsylvania doesn't end the contest, and it is allowed to go into June, or even beyond that to the convention, a November defeat becomes exponentially more likely.

And, Democrats get closer to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory . . . once again. *

Eric Schmeltzer is a political communications consultant who grew up in Elkins Park.