- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

A rising anti-incumbent tide threatens Republican control of Congress this year, but political winds, like the tides, can shift direction and that may happen before Election Day.

This week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll reports that 53 percent of Americans were in an angry anti-incumbent mood, 29 percent were pro-incumbent, while 13 percent were neither. Recent events have no doubt intensified the perfect storm that seems to be brewing less than three months before voters go to the polls.

Murphy’s Law says that if things can get worse, they probably will and that seems to be the case for President Bush and the Republicans.

Oil prices were high enough, but then came the shutdown of Alaska’s North Slope pipeline and oil rose to nearly $77 a barrel, threatening U.S. refinery supplies for two to three months that could make $3 a gallon gas look cheap by comparison.

The war in Iraq was the No. 1 issue in the elections, but then came a new front in the Middle East war when Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists in southern Lebanon began lobbing missiles into Israel, adding one more crisis to Mr. Bush’s growing list of foreign and domestic problems.

At home, financial markets have been on pins and needles over oil, the threat of inflation, a slowing of the economy and cable news networks are raising the R word as in “is there a recession in our future?”

Meantime, polls find Americans are more pessimistic than ever about the direction of their country, feeding the “throw the bums out” mood.

And replace them with what? Democrats who want to cut and run from Iraq and let al Qaeda insurgents snuff out the flickering flame of democracy in the Middle East and make it once more a training ground for terrorists to attack us again?

While a slight majority of voters seems ready to put Democrats back in charge of Congress, the same poll finds that “For all their disenchantment, most voters are not sure what the party stands for,” the Post reported. “Just 48 percent say Democrats offer a clear direction from Republicans, while 47 percent say they do not.”

Significantly, the poll found that “a slight majority of Democrats” say their own party has no strategy for Iraq.

That is the critical political weakness in the Democrats’ anti-war arsenal that Mr. Bush and the Republicans are going to be pounding on the campaign trail and in television ads in the next two months.

The biggest advantage Mr. Bush and his party have as they prepare for the fall campaign is that Americans trust Republicans more to keep the country safe and to do a better job in the global war on terrorism.

That issue produced the GOP’s election victories in 2002 and 2004 and the White House believes it will be the pivotal, turning point issue in the 2006 elections as well.

The Democrats, who are in the grip of their party’s leftist, anti-war pacifist wing, have played into the GOP’s hands on this one. Defining their party’s national security posture by how fast they would pull out of Iraq does not instill confidence that they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to keep America safe. Nor does their opposition to warrantless surveillance of terrorist phone calls, terrorist bank accounts and strengthening the anti-terrorist Patriot Act.

Still, two of the nation’s veteran election trackers are forecasting that the Democrats will likely make major gains in the House and Senate.

Charlie Cook, who had maintained that Republicans could withstand a Category Three or Four storm in November, now says they could lose the House where Democrats need a 15-seat gain to win a majority.

In his latest Cook Political Report, he rates 15 Republican seats as toss-ups. “No Democratic seats remain in that column. In a very large tidal wave election, as this one appears to be, it would not be unusual to see all toss-ups go to one party,” he writes in the National Journal.

In the Senate, ace election forecaster Stu Rothenberg says Democrats will gain seats this year, “somewhere from three to five seats.”

There is no doubt that Republicans face heavy, maybe hurricane-force winds in the coming weeks. The political climate is hostile to them, there is more intensity among Democratic voters and more pessimism among all voters.

But if this is so, why are polls showing Democratic Senate seats at risk in New Jersey, Washington state, Minnesota and possibly Michigan? Why is Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gaining on his Democratic challenger Bob Casey this early in the campaign?

In many races a pivotal factor will be turnout, an area where Democrats admit their operation is a mess. A veteran Democratic turnout strategist told me “we’re not going to match the Republicans’ voter turnout organization.”

The Democrats may rule in the generic polls but who turns out to vote will decide this election.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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