Both Parties Sensing Tighter House Races

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), right, with House candidate John Cranley of Ohio, still likes his party's prospects for significant gains in the House.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), right, with House candidate John Cranley of Ohio, still likes his party's prospects for significant gains in the House. (By Al Behrman -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

After months of unrelenting bad news, President Bush and his Republican allies have begun to change the mood, if not the overall trajectory, of a midterm election campaign that has tilted against them for a year.

A combination of good luck -- in the form of a sharp decline in gasoline prices -- and dogged persistence by the president's political team in trying to redefine the terms of the fall campaign has given a much-needed morale boost to beleaguered Republican candidates. The ebullience many Democrats exhibited throughout the summer has given way to more cautious assessments of how difficult the final six weeks may be.

Republicans remain very much on the defensive, anticipating losses in the Senate and possible loss of control in the House. Surveys show that voters strongly disapprove of the performance of this Congress and continue to express far greater willingness to vote for Democrats over Republicans in House races in November.

But top strategists on both sides believe the battle for the House will be hard-fought to the end. Democrats need to win 15 seats to take control of the House and six seats to recapture the Senate.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said conditions continue to favor his party, but many Democrats in Washington have been "out over the tips of the skis" with unduly optimistic predictions of a November takeover of the House. "Anybody associated with this process the past 19 months has been nothing but pragmatic" about prospects for winning a majority, he said.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, reiterated to reporters last week his belief that Republicans will still control the House in January. His predecessor, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), said in an interview that while Republicans are still running uphill, the Democrats' "forward march has been halted" since Labor Day.

"Voters early on decided they didn't want Republicans, but they haven't decided they want Democrats," Davis said. "So the House is very much in play."

Bush's anti-terrorism initiative timed to the fifth anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the end of hostilities in Lebanon, a rise in the stock market and last week's compromise between the White House and three powerful but rebellious GOP senators on the treatment of detainees have all helped give Republicans a sense of forward momentum for the first time in months.

Some of that may prove illusory. Iraq has not disappeared as a burden for Bush and Republican candidates, and despite the recent drop in gasoline prices, economic worries persist, polls show.

Republican hopes on Nov. 7 -- 45 days away -- now hinge on whether the president can sustain the modest gains of the past few weeks and whether that translates into a rise in approval for congressional Republicans.

Bush's approval ratings remain low by historical standards but are markedly higher than they were at their lowest point in the spring, when they dipped below 35 percent. Most of the polls taken after Bush's nationally televised Oval Office address Sept. 11 put the president's approval rating above 40 percent, with two polls -- USA Today-Gallup and Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg -- pegging his approval at 44 percent. A New York Times-CBS News poll put his approval at 37 percent.

The president's support among Republicans has risen, and once-balky GOP voters apparently have begun to coalesce around vulnerable House incumbents, operatives on both sides believe. "Republicans seem to be awakening and coming back to their partisan senses," said a Democratic strategist, who would discuss private data only on the condition of anonymity.

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