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First thoughts: Are Democrats closing the gap?

Why Democrats might be closing the gap: because their voters are coming home… Why they're still in trouble: because they're not in good shape with seniors and economically stressed blue-collar voters… Obama highlights GM's turnaround with speech in Michigan at 1:40 pm ET… Why over-pandering to the Tea Party might not be working for Republican candidates in Michigan, Kansas, and Tennessee… Previewing IL-11… And Harry Reid (at 43%) and Sharron Angle (at 42%) are neck-and-neck in a new Mason-Dixon poll.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Are Democrats closing the gap? Largely lost in all the recent focus on the BP spill, Shirley Sherrod, the Arizona immigration law, Charlie Rangel, and the Wikileaks leak is this bit of news: Democrats -- perhaps ever so slightly -- are beginning to close the midterm gap. For two-straight weeks now, they've had a lead in Gallup's weekly generic ballot test. In some key Senate races (Nevada, Kentucky, and Illinois), they like their poll position, at least compared with what it was a few weeks ago. Charlie Crist is running better in Florida than many expected after his indie switch. Colorado has turned into an absolute nightmare for Republicans. And House Democrats are feeling a bit better about their prospects.

*** Or is it just a blip? But that's one way to look at things. Here's the other way: Remember our adage -- live by the Gallup tracking poll, die by the Gallup tracking poll. ("For now, people will have to just sit tight," Charlie Cook writes today, "wait for the next week's Gallup release, and watch how other reputable pollsters weight in.") What's more, Republicans feel like they're in better shape in the Senate contests in Washington state, Wisconsin, and even California than they were two months ago (though Dems think things have improved in California). And as far as the House goes, many of the competitive contests are taking place in white/rural districts, which benefits the Republicans. "All in all, the wind continues to be at our back as we move forward towards November," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh tells First Read.

*** Coming home: But if things are getting better for Democrats -- even at the margins -- it's probably because of this reason: Just a little over three months until Election Day, Democratic voters and Dem-leaning indies are beginning to "come home." (Did all the focus on Robert Gibbs' the-House-is-in-play comment help things here?) As we mentioned in our New York Times op-ed back in May, the political waves of '94 and '06 were caused, in part, by the incumbent party's demoralized base. And if Democratic voters get engaged, as did they in that PA-12 special election, that is how they hold their majorities, or at least not get creamed. But make no mistake: Democrats aren't suddenly in better political shape and still face the real possibility of losing their majorities in one or both houses of Congress. And why they're in peril is because of two KEY swing voting groups: seniors and economically stressed blue-collar voters. And that's your battle come November.

*** The GM turnaround: We said it at the time: As the GM bailout goes, so goes the Obama presidency. It was the bailout everyone in America could understand, and it wasn't popular. In our June 2009 NBC/WSJ poll, the American automaker had an awful 18%-47% fav/unfav. A year later, however, the Obama administration believes it has a good story to tell. And today, the president is going to tell that story. Later this morning, he heads to Michigan, where he will tour a Chrysler and then a GM plant. After that, he'll make remarks about the auto industry at 1:40 pm ET. There are real signs that the American auto industry has a pulse. What's helped besides the government's intervention? Well, the Toyota debacle for one thing. But GM has also embarked on quite the image campaign. And in our May 2010 NBC/WSJ poll, guess what GM's fav/unfav was? 37%-27% Quite the turnaround.

*** Over-pandering to the Tea Party might not be working in GOP primaries: The Tea Party flexed its muscle with the victories by Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, as well as chasing out Charlie Crist from the GOP. But check out what might not be working: over-pandering to the Tea Party in GOP primaries. Whether it was the emphatic rejection of those Tea Party cliché candidates in Alabama (remember that Rick "Gather your armies" Barber and that Dale Peterson character didn't win their primaries), or what's playing out in key GOP races in Kansas, Tennessee, and Michigan, we're seeing what appears to be the rise of more mainstream conservative messengers. So while the Democrats are trying desperately to paint the entire GOP with Tea Party, and while some mainstream Republicans are trying to mainstream Tea Partiers, Republican primary voters aren't necessarily responding to the stereotype.

*** 75 House races to watch: IL-11: The Democratic nominee is freshman incumbent Debbie Halvorson, who won TK% of the vote in 2008 (when Illinois's Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket). The Republican nominee is Adam Kinzinger, a retired Air Force captain/decorated Iraq veteran. Halverson voted for the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and health care. Obama won 53% in this district in '08, but Bush won 54% here in '04. Both Cook and Rothenberg rate this seat as Lean Democrat. This is a district that tests the Obama surge vote factor.

*** More midterm news: In Alaska, GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski has a comfortable lead in her primary race, per a new poll… In Nevada, a new Mason-Dixon poll shows Harry Reid and Sharron Angle neck-and-neck, with Reid at 43% and Angle at 42%... And in Washington, Jim DeMint is backing Senate candidate Dino Rossi (R).

Countdown to KS and MO primaries: 4 days
Countdown to CO, CT, and MN primaries: 11 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 95 days

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