The poll numbers are so bleak for congressional Republicans these days that Democrats already have started arguing over who will get what committee chairmanship when the House returns to their control after the November midterm elections. Surveys show the president and his party trailing in almost every category of voter, from Catholics to Wal-Mart shoppers.

The current minority is so optimistic that Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a 32-year veteran of Congress, has made it clear he would like to be majority leader.

What has mainly boosted Democrats’ morale to near-hysteria is the abysmal overall performance rating of President Bush, brought about largely by a growing frustration over Iraq. The numbers leave little doubt that most Americans now believe the invasion was a mistake and don’t see a clear way out of what to them is becoming more and more like a Vietnam-type morass.

But hold on. Counting the votes before they’re cast is always dangerous, and at least one highly respected pollster, John Zogby, believes the Democrats are some distance from “closing the deal.” In fact, at this point he doesn’t see the kind of landslide that would put the Democrats back in charge of the House after a 12-year hiatus. A major reason in addition to a lack of coherent programs is that they are “tongue tied” on Iraq. He says that 90 percent of those questioned who view the war as their No. 1 issue are opposed to it and that the failure of most Democrats to speak out has left these voters uncertain about them.

“Americans are waiting for someone to say, ‘Here is how we get out of this,’ but no one really is. It may be unanswerable,” Zogby told reporters recently. “It is clear to me that they (Democrats) have to come out in opposition to the war. Not only is that what the overwhelming majority of Democrats want, that’s what a majority of Americans want. They want an end to the war. They want an exit strategy. For the Democrats, I don’t think the slogan ‘Had enough?’ is going to be enough.”

Despite the growing public anger over Iraq, Zogby has found that Republicans still have a double-digit lead when it comes to dealing with the overall matter of fighting terrorism.

His surveys support the contention that Democrats have spent too much time giving themselves high fives and concentrating on the “culture of corruption” that they contend House Republicans have fostered, when it is an issue that swings both ways. Those polled say that when it comes to ethics in government, there is almost no difference between how the parties are perceived, giving the Democrats no advantage.

That seemed to be the message in the recent election to fill the seat left vacant in California by the resignation of GOP Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who has been sentenced to prison for his involvement in a bribery scandal. Republicans held onto the seat, although the margin was slimmer than they would have liked. It was clearly a major victory for the GOP under the circumstances despite Democratic contentions the margin revealed weakness in a traditionally Republican district.

“By a factor of 40 percent to 29 percent, voters would choose Democrats in their congressional elections, but better than one in four are still undecided. That is very significant,” Zogby said. “To win control of Congress, the Democrats have to target Middle America _ those voters who are not in their natural support base. They have to have a program on taxes. They have to have a program on government spending.” He predicted that if this year’s election campaigns are run on terrorism and taxes, Republicans will win. And if they are run on gas prices, education, health care and the environment, Democrats will win, he said.

With less than five months left before Election Day, here are the president’s approval numbers with which congressional Republicans must struggle: 31 percent positive to 67 percent negative, with his performance rated poor by 46 percent. In all categories, with the exception of those who identify themselves as conservatives or Republicans _ his numbers are below 50 percent. That includes: married, white, rural, Catholic, Protestant, born again, veterans, NASCAR, investor class, Wal-Mart, red states, men and independents.

Although it looks like a landslide and smells like a landslide, there is enough volatility out there to make longtime observers cautious. Bringing some troops home this summer could change the dynamic.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)