Midterm elections could go either way

Call it the campaign with no margin for Republican error, in a nation that is war-weary and eager for change, yet seems wary of the Democratic option.

Even Republicans tacitly concede they will lose seats in both the House and Senate in Nov. 7 elections midway through President Bush’s second term. Yet Democrats, long out of power, are loath to predict publicly they will gain the six Senate and 15 House seats they need for control of Congress.

Voters like Jim Meyer are part of the reason one party is scuffling, yet the other not completely confident.

“I think we’re in a lot of trouble,” said the 59-year-old resident of Greenhills, Ohio, a Bush voter in 2004. His reasons: “Our commitment overseas, using our National Guard as much as we’re using it, calling back our troops” to duty.

Still, he sized up the political alternative in less-than-glowing terms. “I think a lot of Democrats come across as crazies.”

It’s an impression Democrats are determined to negate — and Republicans eager to reinforce — in the 10 weeks from the traditional Labor Day campaign kickoff until Election Day. In all, 33 Senate seats, the entire 435-member House, 36 governorships and hundreds of ballot questions will go before the voters.

Polls show the war in Iraq is unpopular, Bush’s public support is lagging, and the GOP-controlled Congress is viewed poorly by the public. In an Associated Press-Ipsos poll in August, 71 percent of those surveyed said the country was moving in the wrong direction.

As a result, Democrats hope to make the election a referendum on the president and his party. Their targets include the war, the flawed response to Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff-spawned congressional corruption scandal, the high price of gasoline, the “stay-the-course Republicans,” as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (news, bio, voting record), chairman of the House campaign committee, describes them.

The call for change is nothing new for the Democrats, out of power for most of the past 12 years. “What is different this (election) cycle … is the fact that Democrats were trying to contrive messages of anger, if you will, in 2002 and 2004,” said John Anzalone, a pollster for Democrats in several competitive races.

Now, he said, “we’re not trying to create that environment. The environment is there for us.”

“The (political) environment is very challenging,” conceded Ken Melhman, Republican Party chairman.

“The single most important thing that is critical to Republican success is making this a choice and not a referendum. There are two very different strategies for how to prosecute a global war. The reason there is going to be a choice is there are real differences.”

It’s a point that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have all made in recent days as they seek to cast the war in Iraq as central to a broader war on terror.

Having concluded they ceded the national security issue with little resistance in the last two elections, Democrats push back hard, and one recent poll said a majority of the country does not accept the administration’s view of Iraq’s place in the overall war on terror.

In a note of caution to their candidates, some Democratic strategists say there is no public consensus on how the military mission should end, or when.

Maybe not.

But except for seeking Bush’s help in raising campaign funds, Republican incumbents are eager to emphasize their independence from him and his prosecution of the war.

That leaves the GOP senatorial and House party committees testing other themes for an autumn attempt to depict Democrats as a risky alternative in an era of terrorism.

The House GOP committee, trying to save Rep. John Hostettler from defeat in Indiana, began airing an ad Friday that asks whether his opponent will support the Democratic leader, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker. “She and other Democrats want to raise your taxes, cut and run in Iraq, and give amnesty to illegal immigrants,” it says.

The Republican senatorial committee offered a different preview in Rhode Island, using a GOP candidate as a test case. It unleashed an ad accusing GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s conservative primary challenger, Steve Laffey, of taking a position on immigration that posed a risk to the nation’s security.

While 33 Senate seats are on the ballot, the outcome does not appear seriously in doubt in even a dozen races.

Republican incumbents facing particularly challenging races include Sens. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Conrad Burns in Montana, Mike DeWine in Ohio and Jim Talent in Missouri.

Chafee, a moderate, faces Laffey in a Sept. 12 primary, before the winner can turn to the fall campaign in heavily Democratic Rhode Island.

Democrats also are in a competitive race in Tennessee, where Majority Leader Bill Frist is retiring, and have signaled they intend to make at least initial investments in Virginia and Arizona in hopes of closing polling gaps there.

Republicans tout their challengers against Sens. Ben Nelson in Nebraska, Maria Cantwell in Washington, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and Robert Menendez in New Jersey, and they hope to pick up an open Democratic seat in Minnesota. Democrats lead in pre-Labor Day polls in most of those states.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, hoping to become the only black Republican in the Senate, faces the winner of a Democratic Sept. 12 primary.

In Connecticut, Sen. Joe Lieberman is running this fall as an independent, openly courting Republican support against the man who defeated him in the Democratic primary, anti-war challenger Ned Lamont. Republicans have abandoned their own candidate in the race.

In the House, Rep. Tom Reynolds, head of the GOP campaign effort, predicted, “There’s going to be a hard fought battle over three dozen seats” out of 435.

Emanuel and the Democrats say the number is larger than that, and growing.

Whatever the number, nearly all the contested seats are in Republican hands, many in the Northeast and Midwest, meaning the Democrats are on offense. Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Indiana combined are home to 10 GOP incumbents in tough races.

Republicans also face struggles to hold seats where their incumbents retired, including Arizona, Iowa, Colorado, New York and Illinois. In Texas, where former Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s summertime resignation sparked a court battle, the GOP is left with only a write-in candidate.

Republican targets are few, and include seats in Texas, Iowa, Georgia, South Carolina and Vermont, where independent Rep. Bernie Sanders is running for the Senate.

Among governors, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger is running strongly for re-election in California, and underscored his movement toward the political center recently when he agreed with Democratic legislative leaders to limit the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Democrats’ best chances for regaining big-state governorships are in New York and Ohio, where Republican incumbents are retiring.

The GOP hopes to win back Iowa, where Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack is stepping down, but the pre-Labor Day polls are close.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press