- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Even the most partisan Democrats have said all year they expected their 6-to-10-point advantage over the Republicans in the party preference polls to tighten as Election Day neared.

But certainly no one expected the midterm congressional elections to tighten as much as they have so early in the general election cycle. Earlier this month the Gallup Poll reported a 4- to 6-point advantage for the Democrats, which fell to 2 to 3 points, and is now down to a “dead heat” among likely voters who say they will vote Republican (48 percent) and those who say they will vote Democratic (48 percent).

This is not to say the GOP will dodge the bullet and still hang on to majority control of the House. Democrats have maintained an advantage all year among registered voters and still do. But historically the turnout record among registered voters has lagged behind likely voters, a group pollsters consider to be a much more accurate measurement of the electorate’s preferences.

Midterm elections tend to draw a smaller voter turnout than presidential elections, and Gallup points out in an analysis of their latest findings that if the race is a dead heat nationally among likely voters, Republicans have the potential to offset the Democrats’ lead among registered voters “with greater turnout” from their base. That’s because the Republicans are better at the voter turnout game than the Democrats — a talent they demonstrated in 2000, 2002 and in 2004.

But for the first time this year Gallup not only says the battle for control of Congress is in a dead heat, but says if the GOP’s much-improved numbers “persist until Election Day, it suggests Republicans would be able to maintain their majority-party status in the House.”

All this is due to some pretty amazing campaigning by President Bush (that has lifted his anemic job approval scores to 44 percent) and several weeks of speeches refocusing the nation on the war on terrorism and connecting it to the war in Iraq. Polls show his strategy has been a key factor in moving the numbers in the GOP’s direction.

Democratic strategists like Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, concede Mr. Bush’s efforts to elevate the terrorism issue in the campaign “has been marginally effective. The Republicans got a bounce out of the September 11 speech. The president does have the ability to change the debate in the country. The problem is it is not sustainable.”

In fact, additional polling data released by Gallup within the past week or two suggest not only is the president changing the voters’ attitudes on the Iraq war but that Democrats have been hurt by their failure to shape a clear, convincing message about dealing with terrorism and Iraq.

Here’s what the nonpartisan Gallup Poll has to say about all this in a separate analysis of its numbers:

“Americans are more positive about the war on terror and voters are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports Bush on terrorism rather than one who opposes him. By a slight margin, Americans tend to think that the country will be safer from terrorism if the GOP retains control of the House, rather than if the Democrats take control. And voters are now as likely to say that the war in Iraq is a part of the war on terror as say it is not,” Gallup said.

Missing from all the yearlong political analysis we’ve heard about Republican troubles is the unspoken realization the Democrats are in deep trouble, too. To be sure, a majority of Americans still disapprove of Mr. Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq, but only 1 in 4 now “believe the Democrats have a clear plan on Iraq — fewer than those who say this about the Bush administration,” Gallup said.

“Also, Americans are about equally likely to say they would vote for a candidate who supports President Bush on Iraq as to vote for a candidate who opposes Bush,” the analysis said.

What should worry Democratic campaign officials “is the fact that only 14 percent say the Democrats have a clear plan but Bush does not, while a greater percentage (23 percent) says Bush has a clear plan but the Democrats do not,” Gallup said.

This is all pretty strong stuff from the premier polling organization in the country that is known for its caution and even-handed approach to the ups and downs of voting trends in the elections.

But a survey of the last week’s polls and what is happening in many of the races appears to confirm Gallup’s findings.

The Los Angeles Times, which polled 1,347 registered voters, reported last week that “On virtually every comparison between the parties measured in the survey, Republicans have improved their position since early summer. “In particular, Republicans have nearly doubled their advantage when voters are asked which party they trust most to protect the nation against terrorism,” the newspaper said.

Of course this election will not be decided by a national vote but by who wins in some 30 competitive congressional districts and a half-dozen Senate races. There’s no doubt the Democrats will gain seats on Nov. 7, but Gallup’s numbers suggest the Republicans clearly have the momentum right now.

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

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