- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2002

President Bush heads into the congressional campaign season fighting a recession and a war on terrorism.
He also faces the first major election test of his presidency: Will his popularity help Republicans strengthen their hold on the House and reclaim the Senate?
With his public approval polls soaring to 90 percent because of his handling of the war and a year of legislative victories from tax cuts to education reform, Mr. Bush plans to hit the campaign trail in the coming months in a determined bid to return the Republican Party to full control of Congress.
"We feel we are in a very good position right now. Congressional redistricting continues to go our way and we stand to pick up eight to 10 seats," said Carl Forti, the National Republican Congressional Committee's spokesman.
"Our generic polls are up over the Democrats. And the issues that are most important to Americans national security, fighting terrorism and the economy are the ones they feel the president and Republicans can do a better job of handling," Mr. Forti said.
But the economy is also in a nearly yearlong recession, with the unemployment rate close to 6 percent and climbing, a situation that Democratic leaders say was caused by Mr. Bush's tax cuts and fiscal mismanagement.
The party that holds the White House usually loses seats in the midterm elections. Democratic officials think that if the economy and the job market remain weak, many voters will show their dissatisfaction by voting for Democrats in November.
"There's no question that this is going to be a pretty close election. The fact is that the country has been evenly divided in partisan terms in the last several congressional elections and certainly in the last presidential election," said Democratic campaign pollster Mark Mellman.
"If you look at the historical record, presidents in the midst of war have not done very well in the midterm elections. The argument that Bush's popularity would help make gains for his party proved to be wrong. I don't think he has any coattails, as last year's elections demonstrated very conclusively," Mr. Mellman said.
But even Democratic officials think it's too early to make any claims right now. "We've got a few things breaking our way. We think redistricting gains will be pretty even in the end. I see polls showing it going in either direction. So I'm not sure there's any way to firmly establish who's ahead at this point," said Mark Nevins, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
At stake in this year's elections are:
A narrowly divided House where Democrats need a net gain of six seats to win control for the first time since 1994.
A Democrat-controlled Senate where a one-seat gain would put the Republicans back in charge.
Thirty-four governorship races in which the Democrats are likely to make further gains after a decade of Republican dominance.
Democrats won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey last year, but they lost the New York City mayor's race and saw Republicans make further gains in the Virginia legislature. The national agenda had little if any impact on those elections, however, and Mr. Bush chose not to campaign.
However, Mr. Bush and the Republicans have a lot going for them politically as they head into this year's contests.
Last month a USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll showed Republicans edging out Democrats by 46 percent to 44 percent, with 10 percent undecided, when voters were asked which party they planned to support in the 2002 congressional elections.
In another survey conducted by former Clinton pollster Mark Penn, voters said that homeland safety, the war against terrorism and the economy were the issues they cared about most. Americans said they trusted Mr. Bush and Republicans more than the Democrats to handle these three issues, Mr. Penn found.
There are also growing signs that the economy may be turning around in time to rob the Democrats of a major campaign issue. The manufacturing decline is easing. Layoffs appear to be slowing down. The stock market has rebounded. Consumer confidence is rising.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who single-handedly blocked Mr. Bush's economic-stimulus bill last month, kicked off his election-year offensive on Friday, blaming the vanished budget surpluses and the weak economy on Mr. Bush's tax cuts.
But White House officials believe they have inoculated their party from any political injury through their incessant demands for Senate action on a recovery plan and the public perception that Mr. Daschle prevented an up-or-down vote on a Bush-backed compromise package worked out just before Congress adjourned.
Mr. Bush's weekend speaking trip to California and Oregon was aimed at reinforcing that perception.

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