WASHINGTON — Nobody's panicking at Republican headquarters on Capitol Hill - yet. But as standard-bearer Bob Dole battles to come from behind in the presidential race, GOP strategists are increasingly concerned about their ability to defend their congressional majorities in November.
Their main problem: With voting only weeks away, the House and Senate electoral outlooks remain extremely uncertain. A big Clinton win at the top of the ticket might yet prove a tide that sweeps away GOP candidates and restores Democrats to legislative power.
That's still not the most likely scenario. As late as July, however, continued Republican power on Capitol Hill seemed more certain. "The balance is so close," says David W. Rohde, a Michigan State University political scientist who studies congressional election patterns. "This is an extraordinarily unusual year in that regard."
One warning sign for Republicans is that their numbers are slipping in what's called the "generic" congressional ballot test. Such common polls simply ask voters who they would prefer control Congress - Democrats or Republicans - without reference to specific candidates or districts.
A new Newsweek survey of registered voters, for instance, had Democrats leading the GOP in a generic House vote, 48 to 43 percent.
A similar Tarrance Group/Lake Research poll found Republicans still leading, 40 to 38 percent, but two weeks ago figures from the same researchers showed a larger 43 to 38 percent GOP lead.
Democrats need a gain of only 19 or 20 seats to retake control of the House. (The fate of Independent Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders introduces the one-seat uncertainty.) That's not a large figure, as far as congressional margins go.
A 50-seat gain would probably be unthinkable, even with today's volatile electorate. But a Democratic pickup of 30 districts is not beyond the realm of possibility, according to political handicappers. Neither would a 10-seat GOP gain be that surprising.
"I think there's an outside chance the Democrats can retake the House," says Gary Jacobson, a University of California at San Diego expert on Congressional politics. "It's contingent on how a Bill Clinton victory might be."
If President Clinton beats Bob Dole by more than 10 percentage points, the odds are in favor of Democratic House control, says Mr. Jacobson. If Mr. Clinton wins by less than six points, or if Mr. Dole wins, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia will remain Speaker of the House.
Another warning sign for the GOP: Some three dozen Republican House incumbents are even or slightly ahead of their challengers, yet have poll numbers below 50 percent. That means a large number of voters in their districts are undecided.
Many Democratic incumbents were in a similar position in 1994, points out veteran political analyst Charles E. Cook - and saw their races break the other way at the last minute.
One obstacle for the Democrats: The pattern of congressional retirements this year went against them. More Democratic members left the chamber voluntarily than counterparts from the other side of the aisle. A number of these open seats are in the South, and the Democrats will have to fight hard to retain them or keep losses to a few seats.
To win the House, Democrats must knock off a large number of incumbent GOP freshmen, say analysts. Many members of this class, chastened by the public-relations debacle of forcing the government to close last fall, appear vulnerable. On election night, watch the fate of GOP freshman Rep. Jim Longley of Maine for an early indication of which way the congressional tide is flowing.
Further key races will be those of freshman Republicans Rep. Michael Flanagan of Illinois, Rep. Andrea Seastrand of California, and Rep. Rick White of Washington.
The Senate, for its part, will be an easier chamber for Republicans to defend. The retirement pattern among senators favors the GOP even more than it does in the House. Of the 15 Democratic Senate seats up for grab this year, eight have been left open - and thus more competitive - by retirees.
Four of those are in the South. The outcomes of these races (the seats of retiring Sen. Sam Nunn in Georgia; Sen. Howell Heflin in Alabama; Sen. Bennett Johnston in Louisiana; and Sen. David Pryor in Arkansas) might determine the outcome of the Senate battle as a whole.
Right now, the most likely Senate result is a net gain of one seat for the Republicans, says Mr. Rohde of Michigan State. But possible outcomes range from a GOP gain of five to a Democratic gain of five. Democrats must pick up three Senate seats to overcome the current GOP majority.
"The numbers could give you anything from a Democratic Senate to a Republican Senate with a nearly veto-proof majority," says Rohde.
An extraordinarily large number of Senate seats are "in play" this year, according to Rohde. Twenty-five are either toss-ups or just leaning one direction or another.
The turnout question
Turnout could be a big factor here - as it could in the House contest. In 1994, turnout skewed Republican, as frustrated Democrats stayed home and watched as the GOP seized control of Capitol Hill. This year, that scenario might reverse, as Republicans frustrated by the continued weakness of their presidential candidate don't march in to pull the lever. Key Senate races to watch, besides the big four Southern contests:
*MASSACHUSETTS. It's this year's Clash of the Titans, as Gov. Bill Weld (R) battles incumbent Sen. John Kerry (D). Right now it's a toss-up, with Mr. Weld coming on strong.
*NEW JERSEY. Rep. Bob Torricelli (D) and Rep. Dick Zimmer (R) are pulling no punches as they wrestle for the seat left open by retiring Sen. Bill Bradley (D). Another toss-up, according to the latest polls.
*MAINE. The retirement of Sen. Bill Cohen (R) created an opportunity for the Democrats to pick up a seat. Ex-Rep. Joe Brennan (D) remains behind, but he's closing the gap with former gubernatorial nominee Susan Collins. A recent Bangor Daily News survey showed the race 43 to 41 for Ms. Collins.
*OREGON. Republican state Senate president Gordon Smith lost the hard-fought special election to replace ex-Sen. Bob Packwood (R), then turned right around and declared for the seat left open by the retiring Sen. Mark Hatfield (R). The second time this year might be the charm. A Mason-Dixon poll shows him leading businessman Tom Bruggere (D), 45 to 40 percent.