Both Parties Sensing Tighter House Races

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.

Democrats see independent voters, who continue to register disapproval of Bush and Congress, as the key to victory. Republicans, citing low turnout in many primaries this year, believe many of those independents will not vote in November and are focused on mobilizing their own base.

A sustained rise in the president's approval rating could translate directly into fewer lost seats in the House, according to two political scientists who have built models forecasting House elections.

Alan Abramowitz, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, previously projected Democratic gains of about 25 seats in the House, but based on the latest Gallup Poll, he said the gains might be closer to 15 seats.

If Bush's approval is at 40 percent, that will translate to Democratic gains of 13 to 16 seats, projected James Campbell, who is on the faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He said that could drop to 10 to 14 seats if the president's approval stands at 45 percent.

What continues to encourage Democrats is their advantage in what operatives call "generic ballot" polls. That is when surveys ask voters which party they intend to vote for in the election -- with no names of candidates attached. This measurement often appears more optimistic for the Democrats than the actual election results, but Republicans have been about 10 percentage points behind the Democrats through much of this year, including in the latest polls that showed Bush's approval rising.

The decline in gas prices has diminished the significance of an issue that has the power to move voters to the Democrats. In May, when average gasoline prices were $2.95 a gallon, 15 percent of Americans in a Washington Post-ABC News survey cited the issue as the single most important in determining their vote. An ABC News poll in early September, when the average price of a gallon was $2.73, showed that just 5 percent of those surveyed cited it as their most important issue. Gasoline prices have fallen even further since then.

Bush's speeches on terrorism, culminating with his nationally televised Oval Office speech on the night of Sept. 11, were designed to shift focus away from the unpopular war in Iraq to the broader issue that aided Republicans in 2002 and 2004. Whether Bush has succeeded in doing so is not yet clear, although there are signs that Republicans have gained ground against the Democrats in the public's evaluation of which party is better equipped to confront the threat of global terrorism.

"It's probably their best issue because they've won with it in 2002 and 2004," said Rhodes Cook, an independent analyst. "It's like in football. If a play is successful, you keep running it until your opponents stop you, and the Democrats haven't stopped them."

In a new memo from the liberal Democracy Corps, Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg, Jeremy Rosner, Amy Gershkoff and James Carville argue that Democrats can contest the national security issue successfully, if they engage robustly with the Republicans and continue to press economic issues. "The president's strategy is backfiring because it is driving independents to the Democrats," they wrote.

How all this is affecting House races is what preoccupies strategists in the two parties. Democrats say they see no significant shift, while GOP strategists say they have seen some improvements in their candidates' standing. But they caution that the overall climate remains negative. A survey in targeted House districts by the Republican firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates comparing voters' attitudes today versus four years ago found that, "in every measure tested, GOP fortunes have eroded significantly."

The impact in individual districts appears uneven, based on interviews with strategists tracking the races. In the Northeast, where Democrats must pick up a number of seats to regain the majority, Republicans say their prospects have improved. They point to recent GOP polls that show embattled Pennsylvania Reps. Jim Gerlach and Curt Weldon and Connecticut Rep. Nancy Johnson leading their challengers as evidence of progress. Republicans also say they are more confident about holding several potentially vulnerable districts in New York.

But Republican incumbents in Indiana and Kentucky remain in deep trouble and Ohio's environment has kept Republicans on the defensive. Democratic prospects in several districts where Republican incumbents are retiring have brightened in recent weeks. Republicans, for example, see little chance of holding the seat in Arizona's 8th District after conservative Randy Graf won the primary. Late last week, the NRCC canceled October television time it had reserved in that district. Open seats in Iowa and Colorado now held by the Republicans also could easily tip to the Democrats, as could the Texas seat left vacant by former House majority leader Tom DeLay.

Not all the movement is related to the GOP political offensive. In Connecticut, the nasty Senate race between insurgent Democratic nominee Ned Lamont against Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who is now running as an independent after losing the primary, appears to have spilled over on the three critically important House races in the state.

Lieberman has been leading Lamont in the polls, thanks to Republican and independent support, and key Democrats say they are increasingly worried about the party's prospects of carrying the GOP districts held by Reps. Johnson, Chris Shays and Rob Simmons.

These races, like many others this fall, are expected to remain close until Election Day.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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