Political breezes in the November election

I like the way political analyst Charlie Cook sizes up the race for the House of Representatives: "With just six seats separating Democrats from the majority, they don't need a tornado-force wind at their back, but simply a nice steady breeze." Mr. Cook, who has become in a few short years one of the best watchers of the political scene, thinks that the dip in the economy just might provide that breeze.

Normally a strong economic issue could provide that breeze. Certainly the Democrats are now yelling "hard times" and hoping they can convince the voters that the president and his party are to blame for their plight.

Almost overnight, the Democrats latched on to the economic issue and began to push it really hard. That was in mid-September, when Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe came to a Monitor breakfast and told reporters convened there that he had been traveling all around the country and hearing stories of economic woe from "everyone," including joblessness and failing businesses. And this widespread public despair, he said, was fueling a Democratic victory in November.

On that same day, the Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, stepped out into the TV spotlight and with no mincing of words charged the president with being remiss in the way he has been dealing – or not dealing, as Mr. Daschle put it – with the economic woes of the American people.

But just before Daschle lambasted President Bush on the economy, he said he had thrown in the towel in his battling of Mr. Bush's effort to gain Senate authorization for possibly carrying on a war against Iraq. Daschle says that he shifted only after Bush went to the UN for support.

It certainly seemed as though Mr. McAuliffe and Daschle and other Democratic leaders had gotten together and mapped out a new strategy – call it "change the subject." Noting that Democrats were having problems in races all across the country wherever the dominant issue was the Iraq war, they decided to try to refocus the voters' attention on the economy, not the war.

As I see it, the big struggle ahead for the parties comes down to this: Can the Republicans keep the voters thinking about the war, or can the Democrats win over the voters on the economy?

Bush strengthened his public approval and the appeal of the war issue in the weeks after his visits with mourners on Sept. 11 and his speech to the UN assembly. His ratings have shot up again – though they never fell below 62 percent. Charlie Cook, of "Political Report" fame, says that, at this early point of their presidencies, Reagan had a 41 percent job approval rating in the Gallup Poll and Bill Clinton's was 39 percent.

So if there is to be a breeze, it may be coming from the president and blowing behind the GOP candidates. Of course, presidential popularity doesn't necessarily rub off on others seeking office. But it certainly won't hurt the Republicans if the political breeze is blowing in their favor on election day.

Yet the Democrats still have history on their side. Records show them adding a good number of seats in Congress in the midterm election following a loss in the presidential election.

My guess is that the Democrats won't be able to change the subject – certainly not completely. Bush and the war are, daily, dominating the headlines and TV. And with the Democrats no longer strongly challenging Bush on the war, this issue pretty much has been left to the Republicans. Certainly no Democratic candidate wants to be caught looking as if he is opposed to the president on the issue of war. Voices of dissent are being raised, but very quietly.

So what lies ahead? If the Republicans win the turbulent New Jersey Senate race, they may gain control of the Senate. And the war issue might well permit the Republicans to retain their House majority.

But remember Cook's cautionary advice: The Democrats won't need much of a breeze to pick up six House seats.

This cautious approach could apply equally to the Senate, where the Democrats have a one-seat edge and where there are at least seven races that could go either way.

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