A year ago, pundits lauded her as a possible 2008 presidential contender. But as she prepares for critical three-way Middle East peace talks on Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faces a less confident public at home and growing criticism for her role in the Iraq war.

“I don’t think her star was ever that bright to be honest,” said Peter Beinart, editor at large for The New Republic and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He called Rice a “lousy national security adviser” who manages to look “good in comparison to [Vice President Dick] Cheney and [former Secretary of State Donald] Rumsfeld."

Beinart said reality is colliding with the rosy image the press and Republican supporters crafted for Rice when she first became Bush’s national security adviser in 2000 and secretary of state in 2005.

Supporters, naturally, disagree. They say the attacks are unfair, brought about by a fickle press and Democrats who never liked her anyway.

“She is the worst nightmare of the Democratic Party,” said Frances Rice, head of the National Black Republican Association and no relation to the secretary of state. “We believe she is one of the most intelligent women in the country and the most powerful woman in the world. Democrats would not like her to maintain the status that she has.”

The criticism appears to have been building since the first of the year. "Soulless" author Susan Estrich first laid it on the table in January, days after Rice endured a grilling over Iraq in the newly Democratic-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“So how did the most visible and attractive woman in the Republican Party become, politically speaking, chopped liver?” Estrich asked in her Jan. 14 Blue Streak column on FOXNews.com.

“The answer is simple. Her war failed. Her policies were proven wrong. She is now presiding over a disaster," Estrich wrote.

Two days later, conservative columnist Robert Novak painted a picture of the State Department under Rice as “a mess.” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack responded in a Bloomberg News article on a Feb. 8, saying Rice "is actually a terrific manager … you’ll find State Department morale is actually very high.”

On Jan. 20, the Economist magazine published an article entitled “The Falling Star of Condoleezza Rice.”

Despite the criticism of late, Rice is having a good week. On Monday night, she got a new deputy, Robert Zoellick, who was confirmed the night before by the Senate. On Wednesday, the State Department announced that six-party talks had reached a tentative breakthrough agreement with North Korea to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for massive heating oil and other assistance.

Rice leaves this weekend for three-way talks on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting, to return focus to the roadmap for peace in the region, is the result of successful negotiations with Middle East leaders in January.

Her engagement with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders will be the first three-way meeting since Bush announced the roadmap in 2003 alongside former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Abbas. Administration officials are hopeful the meeting will help encourage stability in the region, particularly as the Palestinians seek a unity government between Fatah and Hamas.

While the North Korea agreement received mixed reviews as well as criticism from John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, it certainly appears as if Rice was riding a diplomatic high, said Chuck Pena, a national security analyst for the Independent Institute.

"With Condoleezza Rice, any success on the foreign relations-State Department front is going to help her," Pena said. But, he noted, "as long as Iraq is raging" Rice will be on the hot seat with both Congress and international critics.

"I don’t know how she is going to offset criticism," he said. "Despite any other successes she might have, she is not going to be able to distance herself from Bush on Iraq."

In a Jan. 18 interview with leading German news magazine, Der Spiegel, Rice conveyed a sense of optimism for the U.S surge in Iraq and in the region, and hinted the United States is not alone in that optimism.

"I think that everyone — and I found this by the way in the region, too — is impressed with and pleased that there is an American recommitment to Iraq, that the president is not following the voices of some who would say, well, just leave the Iraqis to their own problems at this point because we feel a responsibility to the region, to the world, to help stabilize Iraq," she said. "I've found broad support for what the president is prepared to do."

That support obviously has not extended to Congress. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 11, the day after Bush announced his troop surge, Rice was criticized by both Democrats and Republicans about Iraq war policy. The unmarried Rice faced a particularly cutting slight by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who suggested Rice was cavalier about sending troops to war because she has no children and will pay no personal price.

Perhaps taking the heat once reserved for Rumsfeld, who was pushed out of his job in December, Rice was also slammed for not engaging in broader diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria, both U.S.-designated terror sponsors, and for faulty intelligence leading up to the war.

Melana Zyla Vickers, a writer and foreign policy columnist for Tech Central Station, said the criticism is not reserved for Rice alone.

“The public’s negative view of the war doesn’t help anyone in the Bush inner circle right now. That’s a problem for the whole administration and the country, not just Rice,” she said. “As for her taking a drubbing in the liberal and conservative media alike, I’ve always thought men gave her a rougher ride on competency issues than she deserved.”

Sherri Annis, Republican media strategist, said Rice "is the very public face and voice of this war." Unlike Estrich, who described Rice’s demeanor at the Senate hearing as “angry and defensive," Annis said she does not think Rice is showing the strains of the unfavorable attention.

“She’s forceful, she holds her own, we certainly can’t visibly see the frustration,” she said. “A job like hers would take its toll on anybody — the high stress, high pressure, huge consequences and she’s handled it in a pretty classy manner, whether you agree with her or not.”

Draft Condi – Just A Dream?

Despite an eager presence of groups seeking to draft Rice to run for president in 2008, including www.rice2008.com, www.4condi.com and www.condoleezzaforpresident.com, Rice has never shown any inclination to run in the wide-open field for the 2008 Republican nomination.

With her humble roots in Birmingham, Ala., foreign policy experience dating back to the George H.W. Bush administration and status as the former provost of Stanford University, many say she cuts a formidable political figure.

“I think she is positively regal, very presidential,” said Vickers. “She’d make a more inspiriting candidate than many I can think of."

And unlike Bush’s low approval ratings, Rice’s have consistently hovered around 50 percent. A December CNN poll had her at 57 percent, considerably higher than Bush or Cheney.

Kate O’Bierne, columnist for National Review, said she takes Rice at her word that she is not running for president. However, “I think she would make a potentially attractive vice presidential candidate for someone else.”

But Beinart said Rice's story is one of style over substance, and what substance there is doesn't play well for the secretary. “For sure, she is also deeply implicated in the Iraq policy ... this would be a blot on her political future,” he said.

Annis said whatever her present circumstances or future opportunities, Rice shouldn’t be considered a casualty of politics just yet.

“I’m sure she’s frustrated that things haven’t gone better. I’m sure there are internal fights which she continues to battle,” said Annis. “But she still has Bush’s ear and his confidence so she probably wants to change things around and leave her mark on history.”