- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

Congressional Republicans say they have a strategic advantage in their effort to increase their House majority, even as national polls show Democrats with a significant lead heading into this year’s elections.

The National Republican Congressional Committee says that despite the polling edge for the Democrats, Republicans are targeting conservative districts that went for President Bush in 2004. “We’re competing for red turf held by Democrats,” NRCC spokesman Jonathan Collegio said.

Four districts stand out as leading prospects for Republican gains, but none is considered a guaranteed win.

The House Race Hotline, a nonpartisan publication, lists Iowa’s 3rd District as the top contender for a Republican pickup. Rep. Leonard L. “Boswell’s facing a well-funded, politically experienced opponent this cycle in state Senate President Jeff Lamberti,” House Race Hotline Editor Josh Kraushaar said.

“And the district narrowly voted for Bush in the last presidential election. If there’s one incumbent that Democrats are worried about, it’s probably Leonard Boswell, especially given recent concerns about his health.”

Mr. Boswell, 72, recently had a noncancerous tumor removed from his abdomen and has been restricted in his ability to make campaign appearances.

The top three other prospects for Republicans are two seats in conservative Georgia districts and the home of embattled West Virginia Democrat Alan B. Mollohan, who faces accusations of corruption from critics who say he delivered lucrative private contracts to his campaign’s financial supporters. Mr. Bush carried the district by 15 percentage points in 2004.

Republicans say they are also targeting Reps. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina and Melissa Bean of Illinois. Both districts voted for Mr. Bush by more than 10 points in 2004, but both incumbent Democrats are considered likely winners.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) described the Republican strategy as “desperate,” and one not likely to yield results.

“Republicans are behind on money, recruiting and support from the American people,” said DCCC spokesman Bill Burton. “Not one of those things can be made up for with spin.”

Mr. Burton said that even if the districts targeted by Republicans are competitive, Democrats are targeting more than 40 Republican districts they consider up for grabs. Democrats need to win 15 Republican seats to gain control of the House.

After relying heavily on Mr. Bush in 2002 and 2004, some Republicans are keeping their distance from the president as he battles the lowest approval ratings of his presidency. Yet even with Mr. Bush’s poll numbers showing a small upward trajectory in recent weeks, House Republicans remain far behind in all generic national polls.

Even if Republicans are unable to win those competitive Democratic seats, there is evidence some of their own districts may be less vulnerable than national polls indicate.

Earlier this month, many observers considered the special election in California’s 50th District a bellwether for Democrats’ hopes of winning control of Congress. However, the race’s Republican candidate, Brian P. Bilbray, defeated his Democrat opponent, Francine Busby, by four points, despite two right-of-center minor candidates drawing away 5 percent of the vote. What’s more, Mr. Kraushaar said that nearly half of the Democrats’ top prospects in 2006 are in districts that supported Mr. Bush in 2004 by a higher margin than in Mr. Bilbray’s district.

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