It's starting to feel like November 2000 all over again, with the US Supreme Court being sought out for another possible role in a crucial federal election.
In the end, the race for this season's contested New Jersey Senate seat thrown into turmoil by the sudden withdrawal of Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) may not matter in the final tally determining which party controls the next Senate. But then again, it might, in a body currently under Democratic control by just one seat.
As of today, political analysts tend to think the House of Representatives will remain in Republican hands by just a few seats. So if the Republicans take the Senate, too, that would give the GOP a clean sweep of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and President Bush less partisan friction over the issues on the table, such as Iraq, the budget, and homeland security, as well as any Supreme Court vacancies that may occur.
But with less than five weeks to go before the Nov. 5 midterm elections, analysts also warn that anything can happen with both the House and the Senate. If former Sen. Frank Lautenberg is allowed on the ballot as the New Jersey Democratic Senate candidate, as the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday, he has a good shot at beating the Republican, Doug Forrester, a political newcomer who had based his campaign largely on not being the ethically challenged Robert Torricelli.
"So much depends on so few seats," says Jack Pitney, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
In addition, say Mr. Pitney and other observers, the most important issues vary race by race and region by region, and so the Republicans can't win Capitol Hill just by emphasizing Iraq and terrorism, and the Democrats can't win just on a national message about the economy, prescription drugs, and Social Security.
Still, there are races where defense is playing a key part and endangering an incumbent, such as the Minnesota Senate race. Sen. Paul Wellstone, one of the Senate's most liberal members, faces a tough challenge from the Republican, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, who is pounding Wellstone on his dovish record.
IN all, in the Senate, there are four Democratic and four Republican seats that are "really vulnerable," says Jennifer Duffy, a veteran Senate watcher for The Cook Political Report. "That's why New Jersey is a big part of the equation."
Besides Wellstone and the New Jersey seat, the endangered Democrats are Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Tim Johnson of South Dakota. "Of those four Democratic seats, last Friday I probably would have told you that Torricelli was going to lose," says Ms. Duffy. "Now with him off the ballot, the Democrats have a really good shot at winning."
For the Republicans, Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas is in a close fight, as is Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado. The Senate seat of New Hampshire's Bob Smith, who lost in the Republican primary, is closely contested by Rep. John Sununu (R) and Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D). In Texas, state Attorney General John Cornyn (R) is locking horns with former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D) to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Phil Gramm (R).
Even if most voters won't be casting ballots based on candidates' views on Iraq and terrorism, the issue is still shielding President Bush from almost certain Republican losses in congressional seats. Almost always, the party that controls the White Houses loses seats in the midterm election, and if the only issues on the table were the economy, the stock market, and corporate responsibility, the Republicans would be much more vulnerable.
"Iraq takes things off the table," says independent pollster Del Ali. "Without Iraq, you're talking Democrats retaking the House and keeping the Senate. Now the Republicans could take back the Senate by a seat.... Both houses will wind up very close."
Strong turnout in some states' primaries has also contributed to the closeness of some races. When turnout is relatively good, that means moderate voters turn out and not just the diehard "base" voters who tend to choose less-moderate candidates.
In New Hampshire, that effect worked to the Republicans' benefit: If the conservative Senator Smith had won his primary, he would have been an easier target for the popular Governor Shaheen than the more moderate Mr. Sununu.
Duffy says turnout in competitive governors' races will have some impact on the Senate.
In South Carolina, she says, the fortunes of the Democratic Senate candidate former college president Alex Sanders rest on the Democratic governor's ability to turn out African-Americans. In the Texas Senate race, the prospects of the Democrat, Mr. Kirk, who is black, are also tied to minority turnout.