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More GOP Districts Counted as Vulnerable

Even more worrisome to the Republicans is Indiana, where three House incumbents -- Reps. Chris Chocola, John N. Hostettler and Michael E. Sodrel -- could fall to Democratic challengers. There, Bush's weaknesses have been compounded by the problems of freshman Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R), who is in hot water over his decisions to switch some counties to new time zones and to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign consortium.

The reversal of fortune is particularly striking in Ohio and Indiana; both states have been dominated by Republicans and have had vaunted party organizations. But organization is less effective with depressed morale. One major GOP consultant said: "If you're outside the Beltway and dealing with activist types and donors, they're angry at the party for not getting as much done, for drifting away from the tenets of the party and a whole host of things. It makes us believe many of them will stay home or not work as hard."

The economy figures prominently in Democratic hopes -- and GOP fears -- even as growth and employment remain relatively strong. Rising interest rates and high energy prices have helped depress consumer confidence.

That is why most of the Democrats interviewed for this report predicted that their party will win a House majority with votes to spare. "That's as of September 1," one well-placed source said, "but on September 1, 2004, John Kerry would have been elected president."

Democrats have learned the hard way to fear the ability of the White House and the Republican National Committee to dominate the final days of any campaign, when the money and organization the GOP can muster come fully to bear.

A Crucial 30 Days

The next 30 days will be critical, as many voters who have been paying only passing attention will focus on their choices. When Congress returns this week, rival party leaders will enter a daily struggle to set the news agenda. The president, even when politically weakened, has the biggest megaphone to drive the debate.

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove told one associate last week that he believes that the climate has begun to turn in a way that will help Republicans preserve their majorities, and GOP officials will spend the coming weeks trying to boost the president's approval ratings and frame the contest.

A pivotal moment will come next week, with the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Last Thursday, the president began a series of speeches on terrorism that Republicans hope will focus attention on the one issue that offered them a decisive advantage in 2002 and 2004.

Some GOP strategists believe that the terrorism issue has lost some of its potency, in part because of the miscalculations and setbacks suffered by the administration in the Iraq war. One pollster who has surveyed the issue said, "That dog won't hunt again." But Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's campaign in 2000, is not so sure: "September 11 shifted something inside the American people, and there are some lingering doubts [about Democrats' stance on terrorism] Republicans know how to exploit."

Over the next month, Democratic challengers will also feel the heat from millions of dollars' worth of negative GOP ads. Normally, incumbents wait until the final weeks of their campaigns to launch their attacks, but party strategists are warning that to wait that long could be fatal. Democrats promise to be just as aggressive in responding, but there is a window in which Republicans have a chance to plant doubts about little-known challengers.

A Republican strategist privy to much of the polling conducted in House districts said that, at this point, it is not difficult to count enough vulnerable districts to show how Democrats can take control. But he offered a cautionary point: "I don't know of a single target race," he said, where the Republican candidate "has spent more than 20 percent of what they intend to spend. The battle is just beginning. That's what people really forget."

Given the climate, Republican candidates will be forced to fend for themselves over the next two months. "They can't realistically look toward the president, the leadership in the House or Senate, congressional action, or the situation in Iraq," one GOP strategist said. "Other than money from the national parties, they're kind of on their own."

For many Republicans who were lifted by support from Bush in the previous two elections, this is a delicate new challenge. They must use their political wits to connect with loyal Republicans while also showing that they have sufficient detachment from Washington leaders to appeal to sour-minded independents, who will probably decide the balance of power in Congress.

Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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