Sunday, September 17, 2006

Republicans appear to be gaining on the Democrats in the 2006 midterm campaign because of growing confidence in the economy, falling gas prices and President Bush’s sustained political offensive on the terrorist threat, according to pollsters and campaign strategists.

The most significant political movement in the past week or two has been in the battle for control of Congress. National preference polls on the so-called “generic ballot” question — which party’s candidate voters say they would choose — show Republicans have narrowed the once-substantial lead Democrats held and are now trailing them by three percentage points, independent pollster John Zogby said Friday.

Mr. Zogby credited the Republican Party’s sudden political turnaround to “the president’s focus on the war on terrorism, a rebound among his own base,” and the Democrats’ failure to lay out a clear plan of their own on “how are we’re going to get out of Iraq and what they would do about terrorism that’s better than the Republicans.”

Democrats “are not giving their Democratic base what it needs to hear on those issues,” Mr. Zogby said. “Republicans are severely wounded. The Democrats should be crushing them, and they are not.”

Top election forecasters have pointed to an anti-Bush and anti-Republican “wave” that they predict will return the Democrats to majority power in the House, but Mr. Zogby said, “I don’t see the landslide that others are seeing. That doesn’t mean it can’t materialize, but as of today, it’s not happening and this is mid-September.”

Some pollsters, such as Gallup, still show the Democrats enjoying larger, 12-point leads in the generic surveys. But Mr. Zogby’s numbers mirror a tightening in several other voter-preference polls, including a Fox News poll of likely voters, and what campaign strategists and political reporters say they are seeing in the battleground states.

The Republican Party’s improving polls coincide with a number of positive developments on the economic front that Republicans hope will further lift their political prospects in November. The price of oil dropped to nearly $62 a barrel Friday from a high of $77 last month, as gasoline prices continued their descent to a national average of $2.62 per gallon, though many battleground states were reporting lower prices for regular.

Some of the lowest averages included Iowa, $2.32; Indiana, $2.36; Missouri and Ohio, $2.25; Minnesota, $2.35; Michigan $2.37; and Kentucky, $2.34.

As gas prices fell, the stock market was rising, with the Dow Jones industrial average soaring to 11,560 Friday, 162 points from its all-time high, that boosted worker pensions — and a consumer confidence survey showed Americans were “in a decidedly more optimistic mood,” the Ipsos poll reported Friday.

The Republicans’ improving poll numbers were also reflected in a number of tighter House and Senate races, while a separate Zogby poll showed that Republicans in three high-profile Senate races — in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio — had improved their poll numbers significantly in just the past week or two.

Much of the party’s gain was the result of Republicans coming home to their party as Mr. Bush focused on the issues that most deeply divide the country — Iraq and the war on terrorism.

“The base is finally coming around. Democratic intensity has been strong for the last year, but Republican intensity all of a sudden has increased,” said Republican campaign strategist John Brabender, who is advising Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in his re-election campaign.

“Some of the positive things that are happening in the economy are starting to cause some excitement among Republicans,” Mr. Brabender said.

“We’re seeing a tightening up in the congressional races, too, in the last 10 days. The president is putting out a much more targeted message, talking about the security of the country. For the first time, he’s playing more offense than defense and that’s helping Republicans,” he said.

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