- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Republicans have been hit hard in the past few weeks on the Iraq war and the Mark Foley page scandal, halting their comeback in the polls and raising Democratic hopes of retaking the House.

The party preference polls, which turned upward in September for the GOP, were down sharply again in a rollercoaster election ride that has four weeks to go before it comes to an abrupt and merciful stop on Nov. 7.

A Washington Post Page One headline Tuesday blared its poll findings, showing a “strong shift of support to Democats.” Congress’ job approval score plunged to 32 percent, its lowest in a decade, and Americans by a 54-35 percent margin said they trusted the Democrats more than the Republicans to solve U.S. problems.

Even more depressing for the GOP, Democrats led Republicans by 55 percent to 39 percent on the question of which party deserved to be re-elected next month.

But in politics, as in other quintessential American challenges, hope springs eternal. If the numbers remain the same or worsen, the GOP could lose as many as 30 seats, said Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, the GOP’s former congressional campaign chairman. But top Republican officials think they have time to turn things around between now and Election Day.

For starters, Republican strategists took comfort in The Post’s finding, buried deep in the story, that “60 percent of those surveyed in the new poll said they approve of the performance of their own member.”

As for the House page scandal, polls show it will have little impact on how people vote. Only 2 in 10 said it would in The Post’s survey. This is confirmed by the GOP’s own internal polling in the past week. “The anger at the grassroots is geared toward one man, Mark Foley,” a senior party official said.

Meanwhile, despite Democrats’ relentless criticism that Iraq has little or nothing to do with the war on terrorism, 51 percent still “agreed with [President] Bush’s argument that Iraq is a front in the global campaign against terrorism,” The Post said. As for the Democrats’ antiwar push for getting out of Iraq, “There is no significant support for withdrawing U.S. forces immediately,” The Post said. Only one-fifth would support such a move.

Republican officials hope to hold their ground on Iraq as they regroup for the final weeks of a campaign offensive that will be marked by a major TV ad blitz that will, among other things, warn voters of the Democrats’ far-left agenda if they take control of the House. That agenda includes:

• A rollback of the Bush tax cuts that would hurt business, workers and families alike.

• A sharp boost in the federal minimum wage to more than $7, which would sandbag small businesses, the engine for most new job creation.

• A cornucopia of higher social welfare spending that has been simmering on Democratic backburners since the Clinton years.

• And a renewed attack on the antiterrorism weapons that George W. Bush and the Republican Congress put in place —from the USA Patriot Act to improved intelligence surveillance and spying techniques to keep America safe.

One of the important strategic realities in this election is that as bad as the GOP’s approval polls are (63 percent disapprove), the Democrats in Congress aren’t getting passing grades either.

Buried at the bottom of The Post’s story where fewer readers would see it was the finding that Americans are deeply divided about the Democrats’ performance in Congress: “48 percent approve, 50 percent disapprove.” But the last line of defense for Republicans will be its high-tech voter turnout drive, senior party officials told me this week. Polls show the Republicans have rallied around their embattled president and party. The Post poll said 82 percent of Republicans approved of the job Mr. Bush was doing, up from 68 percent in May. “We have a grassroots turnout effort that we’ve been finetuning since the last election cycle that will be second to none on Election Day,” said a high-level Republican official.

But in the present climate even a superior turnout ground game may not be enough to save the Republicans in the 30 or more House races where the GOP’s endangered candidates are struggling to overcome a fierce Democratic offensive.

They will need a stronger, sharper message that seems to have gotten lost during the page scandal story that was a distraction from Mr. Bush’s efforts to refocus the campaign on the growing terrorist threat. No doubt the White House will get back on message as the coverage of the Foley story recedes.

Meantime, the price of gas continues declining toward the $2 a gallon range, the economy was creating more than 120,000 new jobs a month in the third quarter, consumer confidence has rebounded, the stock market is in the midst of a bull rally, mortgage rates are falling and the economy is on solid ground.

These are the makings of a political comeback. But can the Republicans pull it off in time?

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

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