GOP sees chance to topple incumbents in House

Usually only toxic incumbents are worse off than fresh candidates from the same party. That was the case when Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who was facing a campaign finance scandal, dropped his re-election campaign in late September 2002 as he was trailing badly in the polls to Republican Doug Forrester.

New Jersey Democrats turned to former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who easily defeated Mr. Forrester and kept the seat in Democratic hands.

But this election cycle, a number of incumbents appear to be worse off than new candidates.

On the Republican side, party leaders last year concluded that Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky was weaker than any new Republican candidate. They pressured Mr. Bunning to drop his bid for re-election.

In Connecticut, embattled Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd’s decision to drop out of the race has turned the Senate seat from a possible Republican pickup to a likely Democratic hold.

Mr. Dodd had trailed potential Republican candidates in the polls, but Richard Blumenthal, the likely Democratic nominee now that Mr. Dodd has dropped out, leads the Republican candidates by about 20 percentage points.

Republicans say the overall election environment puts them in much better shape than they could have imagined just a few months ago.

In October, an ABC/Washington Post poll showed Democrats leading Republicans by 12 percentage points in a generic ballot test. The latest version of the poll, released this week, showed Republicans have taken a three-percentage-point advantage.

The generic ballot test - where voters are asked if the congressional elections were held today would vote for a Democrat or a Republican for their local seat - is considered a good barometer of the parties’ congressional fortunes.

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