From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Fifteen days until election day, it's gotten tough to find a novel angle as the GOP limps toward the finish line for a variety of widely accepted reasons. The party had hoped to campaign on the broader war against terrorism, but a string of recent events, including a spiking US death toll for October, have focused voters' attention on the unpopular war in Iraq and caused party unity to fray. White House efforts to focus on positive developments in the economy are either overshadowed by events abroad or met with skepticism by voters who aren't feeling the effects. Having failed to pass significant ethics and lobbying reform measures all year, Republicans have no means to shield themselves from the latest series of scandals afflicting some of their members and sidelining their top leaders.
As business and government strategist Billy Moore (D) points out, the time remaining for Republicans to change the subject "has all but run out. Early voting and excuse-free absentee balloting, which together will account for half the votes cast this year, has begun in many states and will open in most states this week." The question is whether Democratic party organizations are working the early vote hard to take advantage of a political climate that may ease up a bit for Republicans over the next two weeks, barring further bad news. Meanwhile, the GOP faces the prospect of an unmotivated base and/or alienated independents, and their usual financial edge has been blunted by Democrats' strong late fundraising.
Recent polls show Republicans losing to Democrats on the generic congressional ballot test by margins that are significantly wider than the margins by which Democrats trailed Republicans in October 1994. Leading nonpartisan analysts like Stuart Rothenberg and NBC's Charlie Cook are predicting a GOP loss of at least 20 House seats. GOP strategists and recent polls now suggest that four Senate seats -- in Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island -- are probably gone. If so, Democrats would need to win two more among a pool of three -- Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia -- and hang onto all their own seats to retake control of that chamber. The latest round of MSNBC/McClatchy Senate polls will be released Tuesday morning.
And with a job approval rating below 40%, President Bush's ability to help his party's vulnerable members and competitive candidates has been severely curtailed, as his schedule this week shows. He spends two days on the trail and otherwise fills his time with ceremonial events like today's photo ops with US astronauts and with the King and Queen of Spain. He also takes another stab at highlighting the economy today by visiting a bank and giving CNBC's Maria Bartiromo an interview. Laura Bush, by comparison, has campaign events every day this week, often several in a day. Tonight she raises money for Sen. George Allen of Virginia. Later this week, she'll visit Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York and Indiana, among others -- all states with handfuls of vulnerable GOP candidates.
The latest Newsweek poll shows Democrats leading Republicans on the generic ballot test by 55% to 37% among likely voters and Bush's job approval rating at 35% among adults. Bush advisor Dan Bartlett said on TODAY this morning that Bush has a history of winning very close elections after being written off by pundits in Washington. Vice President Cheney told Time that he's "optimistic that we're going to hold both the House and the Senate," and that he doesn't think the Mark Foley scandal hurt GOP candidates "generally." The scandal is now largely off the front pages, though some of Speaker Dennis Hastert's top staffers are expected to testify before the Ethics Committee this week.
And even as Democrats anticipate taking control of at least one chamber of Congress, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's admitted change of heart on running for president, as voiced on yesterday's Meet the Press, keeps the 2008 presidential race front and center.