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First Glance

From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
The first wave election of the 24-7 news era is now just eight days away.  Cable and the Internet are flooded with coverage and forecasts, and Democrats hold wide advantages on certain polling measures that have proved predictive in the past.  But there's no surefire way to extrapolate from the polls just how big the wave is going to be.  For once, the Bush White House is setting expectations that can safely be considered their best-case scenario: even narrower GOP majorities in the House and Senate.  At the other end of the spectrum, analysts figure that gerrymandering and a Republican fundraising and GOTV advantages would cap possible Democratic gains in the House at around 35-40 seats.  In the Senate, the floor for Democrats appears to be four seats and the pool of competitive races seems small enough to limit their gains to a maximum of seven. 

The latest Newsweek poll shows Democrats leading Republicans by 53%-39% among likely voters on the generic congressional ballot test.  President Bush's job approval rating is 37% among registered voters.  Late to the stump (his first big rally of the cycle was on Saturday), Bush has a fairly light travel schedule this week, at least as of today.  Campaigning against terrorism and taxes, he will rally support for: two challengers to House Democrats in Georgia; the candidate seeking to win resigned Rep. Tom DeLay's seat; Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, who has Abramoff issues; and a couple of candidates in Nevada who also have ethical issues.  In one break for Republicans on the scandal front, the House Ethics Committee is not expected to release a report on the Foley probe before election day.

The upshot of the two parties' late-in-the-game fundraising is that Republicans continue to have an advantage, but Democrats are getting a symbolically important infusion of cash from business types who may have to work with a Democratic majority in the House.  The broadening pool of competitive House seats is reflected in 11th-hour advertising efforts by both sides.  Armed Services chair Duncan Hunter's expected announcement today that he'll explore a run for president also suggests he may not think his party will be in the majority come January.  (Eight days before House Republicans are likely to get ousted from power and rejected in bids for higher office might seem like an odd time for one of them to announce he might run for president.)

As of today, the Senate feels borderline up for grabs.  As nonpartisan Cook Political Report analysts figure, it seems more likely today that Democrats will net four or five seats than six or seven, given the chance that Democrats could lose one seat of their own.  If the wave is big enough, of course, it could land Democrats six or even seven seats. 

Because the Senate is so close to the brink and the pool of competitive seats is relatively small, certain late developments will be remembered as hallmarks of the battle for control.  For example, the GOP's sharp attacks on the Democratic candidates for the two Southern seats, Harold Ford of Tennessee and Jim Webb of Virginia, will be remembered as a pair of efforts to push Southern voters' buttons on race and values.  In both states, a backlash against the personal attacks could help blunt the effects. 

Another highlight of these final weeks are the extremely competitive bids of two African-American candidates, Ford and Maryland Republican Michael Steele.  Indeed, National Journal's most recent "insider's poll" rated their campaigns as the best-run Senate campaigns the cycle.  The Cook report just added the Maryland race to their "toss-up" list; Tennessee was already on it. 

Ford's campaign has, by many accounts, been the best-run of the cycle because (to admittedly oversimplify here) he has made many Southern voters forget that he's African-American.  He has spent the year confronting his GOP opponent directly on Iraq and terrorism and de-emphasizing social issues, reinforcing his image as a moderate.  The burden has been on Republicans to remind voters that Ford is black, which is what that controversial RNC ad arguably did.  His party affiliation hasn't been an issue; this is a rare year when it's not a liability to be a Democrat in the South. 

Steele's campaign overall has made its mark with the most consistently original ads seen by political professionals in a long time.  Steele's challenge has been the opposite of Ford's -- he's had to make voters forget his party affiliation, which is what his ads have done.  The burden has been on Democrats to remind voters that Steele is a Republican.  His race has not been an issue; indeed, Maryland Democrats remain nervous that he could siphon a crucial percentage of the black vote.  A Washington Post poll shows Steele trailing his Democratic opponent by 11 points. 

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