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First Glance

From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
With just 13 days left before the midterms, the under-40% President campaigns from within the White House, doing a 10:30 am press conference and a round of interviews with conservative talk-show hosts, while Laura Bush hits Minnesota and Indiana.  The White House has its best game face on.  Asked yesterday why Bush isn't doing more campaign rallies and other events, spokesman Tony Fratto replied that Bush is ahead of his event pace in 2002, but that because of new campaign finance laws, rallies cost candidates a lot of money.  Fratto had no good answer for why Laura Bush is doing so many, then.  But he argued that Bush's lack of rallies is no reflection of his popularity. 

White House officials aren't the only ones making few solid arguments these days, but Democrats only need to make one.  If they do take control of at least one chamber of Congress on election day, it will be more because Republicans lost than because they won.  How much Democrats recognize this, or not, could affect the longevity of their newfound majority. 

As in previous wave elections, to the extent that the bums really do get thrown out, voters will be rejecting what they see as an entrenched majority that has accomplished little in the past year and has appeared, through example after example, to be more interested in looking out for themselves than in looking out for the American people.  Add to that an ever less popular war in Iraq, and you wind up with a majority party that is trailing the minority in the generic congressional ballot test by double digits.  Virtually all Democrats have to do to succeed in this climate, it seems, is not be Republicans. 

They haven't done much more than that.  They gambled in not putting forth a more substantive agenda than their "Six for '06," a collection of publicly popular, long unpassed items like a minimum wage increase and federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.  They also gambled in not trying to come up with a unified position on Iraq, and it paid off.  Republicans in Washington are as divided over Iraq today as they ever accused Democrats of being.  But as Democrats themselves often point out, voters didn't favor Republicans in 1994 because of the Contract with America.

Not putting forth a more substantive agenda may have repercussions down the road, however.  After months in net negative or break-even territory, the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Democrats rated slightly more positively than negatively -- 37% positive, 35% negative -- by those registered voters polled, prompting our pollsters to say the party has come to be viewed as a "marginally acceptable alternative."  The more seats Democrats win simply by virtue of not being Republicans, the greater the chance that many of those seats will be rentals that they'll be hard-pressed to retain in 2008.

One mitigating factor will be if Democrats know why they won -- or more accurately, that they didn't win and that Republicans lost.  Will they think they have a mandate, as Bush claimed he had in November 2004?  Or will they see a new majority as an opportunity to earn the trust of voters? as NBC political analyst Charlie Cook asks. 

"I hope that House Democrats will internalize the lesson of 1994: don't overreach based on a midterm, 'throw the bums out' outcome.  And use 2007-2008 to bring popular bills that Republicans have traditionally opposed to the floor of the House," says business and government strategist Billy Moore (D).  "They'll need a record to take to voters in 2008 and say, 'Vote for us and our presidential nominee and you'll get these things you want.'"  As presidential aspirant and Sen. Joe Biden (D) said on TODAY this morning, "the burden's going to be on the Democratic party."

Cook predicts a GOP loss of 20-35 House seats and a loss of at least four, but "more likely" five or six Senate seats in his latest National Journal column.  The GOP House campaign committee's "Final Push List" of races for last-minute fundraising includes 27 of the party's own seats, including a few that hadn't previously been on the conventional radar, and only four Democratic-held ones.  Senate campaign committee chairs Elizabeth Dole (R) and Chuck Schumer (D) face off today at a National Press Club luncheon. 

And NBC Nightly News broadcasts tonight from Columbus, OH.

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