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More GOP Districts Counted as Vulnerable
But Mehlman said Republicans have financial and organizational assets to deploy, and he predicted that, over the next 30 days, GOP candidates will attempt to convert the elections from a referendum on the president and congressional Republicans to a choice between competing philosophies on fighting terrorism and growing the economy.
One aim will be to lift sagging morale among traditionally Republican voters. "No question the Democratic base is charged up," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "But my instinct is that our base will come together later. We have the structure and the professionalism and finances to take advantage when that happens. I count on the Democrats to provide that spark -- they could frighten the Republican base into a higher level of activity."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said his candidates will counter any efforts to paint them as not ready for governing by arguing that six years of the Bush presidency have given the nation "an endless occupation and a wage-less recovery." The GOP message, he added, offers nothing beyond "fear."
Emanuel, cautious in his predictions about the fall, said what has given him hope is Republicans' failure over the past few months to narrow the battlefield by using television ads to discredit little-known Democratic challengers. "We've come out of the summer with more races in play than at the beginning of the summer," he said.
Democrats still face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Republicans hold 55 of 100 seats. Needing a net gain of six seats for a majority, Democrats see chances in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana and Missouri. But they would also have to win a race or two in such Republican strongholds as Tennessee, Arizona and Virginia, while holding off GOP challenges in Minnesota, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington.
Governors' races often move independently of national trends, but this year Democrats are almost certain to increase their statehouse numbers, as well. Among the major states, prospects for Democratic takeovers are brightest in New York, Ohio and Massachusetts, while Republicans see opportunities in Michigan, Wisconsin and perhaps Illinois. California's Arnold Schwarzenegger has moved from being a distinct underdog to at least a slight favorite. Republicans are favored to retain Florida and Texas, Democrats, to hold on to Pennsylvania. There are now 28 Republican governors and 22 Democratic.
In the House races, three of the likeliest Democratic pickups are in Arizona, Colorado and Iowa, where incumbents are retiring or seeking higher office. But Democratic strategist David Plouffe said this appears to be an unusual election in which incumbent-held districts are as vulnerable as open seats.
"These Republican incumbents are really wearing a crown of thorns right now for people's anxiety and anger about Washington," he said. "The environment favors us, but in open seats you don't have a Republican incumbent you can attach these [frustrations] to."
One example is Ohio's 18th District, where Rep. Robert W. Ney (R) had appeared headed for defeat because of his connection to the scandal involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Now that Ney has stepped aside, Republicans are more confident of holding the seat.
Since the start of the year, at least 18 more Republicans have gone on the "watch list" for potential defeat. They include veterans such as Anne M. Northup of Kentucky and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, and freshmen such as Thelma D. Drake of Virginia Beach.
GOP's Area of Concern
Republicans face potential losses in every section of the country, but the area that concerns strategists most is the arc of states running from the Northeast across the Midwest. There are three GOP incumbents at risk in Connecticut and four districts in Pennsylvania that could flip in November. In New York, Republicans worry that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Eliot Spitzer will roll up such large margins that several GOP-held districts could be caught in the undertow.
Ohio is another state where Republicans are braced for losses. GOP gubernatorial nominee J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state, is running far behind the Democratic nominee, Rep. Ted Strickland, and the unpopularity of Republican Gov. Bob Taft and the president have put several incumbents at risk, including Rep. Deborah Pryce, a member of the House leadership.