- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

Some Democratic election strategists are less confident than they were a month ago about recapturing the House in November as a result of tighter party-preference polls that show Republicans rallying behind their embattled party.

“I’m not as confident of the House switching as I once was,” a Democratic campaign consultant said last week.

But other Democratic congressional campaign advisers point to about two dozen congressional races where Republican incumbents are facing aggressive challenges that they say could return Democrats to power if there is a voter-turnout surge in November demanding change.

And the resignation Friday of Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, gave Democrats another opportunity to pick up an open seat.

Mr. Foley, who stepped down after press reports that he sent sexually explicit e-mails to an underage former male page, had been considered a shoo-in to win a seventh term in the heavily Republican 16th District. His Democratic challenger, Tim Mahoney, a businessman, has been aggressively campaigning for more than a year, and Republican officials acknowledged it would be difficult for a new candidate to become well-known in the five weeks before Election Day.

Democrats need to win 15 additional seats to take control of the House, and in a tight election, Mr. Foley’s seat could put them over the top.

But recent surveys by Gallup and other pollsters have shown Republicans closing the Democrats’ yearlong advantage as President Bush and his party sharpen their campaign messages on terrorism, Iraq and the economy and as voters begin focusing more closely on the elections.

“I think in a lot of places where there really isn’t a competitive race at hand, Republicans are finding their way back into the electorate and are voting for their own,” said Alan Secrest, a veteran campaign consultant and pollster who is advising Democratic House candidates across the country.

“But in the hot races, the competitive races where we’re working, they remain as competitive as they were. So I believe the Gallup numbers showing a tightening in the generic polls can be true, even as the truly competitive races remain so,” he said.

However, another Democratic campaign adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Republicans’ stronger poll numbers in the part- preference surveys could make the Democrats’ efforts to win back the House “a steeper climb.”

“I expect things to tighten up,” the campaign adviser said.

These concerns were confirmed last week by a top election forecaster who closely monitors the House’s most competitive races.

“There has been a slight uptick in national GOP numbers, and that could help in a number of tight races, particularly in Republican-leaning districts that have been regarded as in play,” campaign analyst Stuart Rothenberg told his newsletter subscribers.

Mr. Rothenberg said he thinks that “Democrats are now poised to net 15-20 seats, which would narrowly return the House to their control.” But, he added, “they don’t have much of a margin for error.”

Mr. Secrest doesn’t see the Democratic erosion that Gallup found last month in its national poll of likely voters ,which showed the party preference vote in a “dead heat.”

“In the competitive races we are working in, the Democratic opportunity [to take back the House] is undiminished,” he said.

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