- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

There has been a palpable shift in the mood in Washington in recent weeks. No longer are insiders in both parties sharing predictions of a Democratic rout of Republicans.

Some on both sides had expected an election debacle for the Republicans, driven by the Iraq war, high gas prices and the perception that a Republican-led Washington can neither shoot nor spend straight.

Now those perceptions have changed.

A 58 percent majority of Democratic insiders polled by National Journal, as well as an overwhelming 94 percent of Republican insiders, say the Republican National Committee is doing a better job for November than the Democratic National Committee.

Three weeks past the traditional Labor Day kickoff of campaign season, many Republicans are expressing greater optimism for their party’s prospects on Election Day, now just six weeks away.

“This is not an election like 1994 and 1974, when we know the outcome is going to be a massive tsunami for one of the two parties,” Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman says. “If the election were today, we would lose some seats, but keep our majorities.”

It’s the job of Mr. Mehlman and of his Democratic National Committee counterpart, Chairman Howard Dean, to wave pompoms for their respective teams, but there was no press corps eye-rolling over Mr. Mehlman’s hopeful statements at a recent Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters.

John Zogby, whose polling until recently forecast a Republican debacle, now says a big reason for the mood shift is that President Bush is regaining crucial support among his party’s voter base by emphasizing national security — his strongest suit — as often as possible.

In a mid-August Zogby poll, only 62 percent of likely Republican voters gave Mr. Bush an “excellent” or “good job” rating. But by mid-September, Mr. Bush’s approval rating among Republicans had reached 76 percent.

“You have to turn out your base for congressional elections, and if the president has 62 percent approval among Republicans, you have a third who don’t approve and a lot of people who might stay home,” says longtime Republican strategist Charles Black. “When the president has 76 percent Republican approval, it makes it a lot easier.”

Bolstered by such developments, Republicans are facing November more confidently — if still cautiously, as with Sen. John McCain’s response yesterday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” when asked if he thought the Republicans would maintain control of Congress on Election Day.

“Yes, I do,” the Arizona Republican answered, “but I think it’s going to be very, very tough … the off-year of the second term of any president is always a tough election. And of course, Iraq is a very controversial issue with Americans. And there’s uncertainty about our future because of globalization. We understand all that, but we also think we have a record we can stand on.”

A popular president makes elections a bit easier for his party’s candidates, and Mr. Bush’s popularity, though still low, has been rising for three months. The latest USA Today/Gallup Poll has his job approval at 44 percent and disapproval at 51 percent — a deficit of 7 percentage points, but a huge improvement over his numbers in June, when Gallup found 36 percent approval and 57 percent disapproval, a negative 21-point spread.

The president’s improved standing has been reflected in voters’ views of the congressional elections. The latest USA Today/Gallup poll has Democratic and Republican candidates for Congress splitting the national vote on the so-called “generic ballot” question, 48 percent to 48 percent. The same poll in June had Democrats leading 51 percent to 39 percent.

Mr. Zogby allows that “things could happen, but right now, I think Republicans hold their majority in both houses.” He said he doesn’t think anger against Mr. Bush is sufficient to turn Congress over to the Democrats.

“The president is slowly but steadily regenerating support among his own base,” he says. “I saw him do it before, going from 78 percent Republican approval before the 2004 GOP convention to 91 percent before Election Day.”

Comparing the 2006 midterm elections to previous major shifts, Mr. Mehlman says he sees none of the signs that preceded those landslides. In 1974, following the Watergate scandal, there was a surge in the Democratic primary-voter turnout and a decline in Republican voter turnout. The reverse was true before the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress.

So far this year, there has been no indication of a Democratic surge. In 36 of 39 primaries, the Democratic turnout has been lower than the average of the past 20 years. Only Connecticut, North Dakota and Vermont had higher-than-average Democratic turnouts this year.

Republicans are doing a better job than Democrats of communicating with their core voters, says Mr. Zogby.

“I think Republicans are talking in an effective way to their base, which is particularly concerned about terrorism,” says Mr. Zogby. “But Democrats, whose base wants to hear how we get out of Iraq, simply dance around the answer. Democrats are acting like John Kerry in 2004, trying to appeal to swing voters in yet another election in which there are no swing voters.”

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