As race ends, still a 50-50 nation

Senate could tip either way, hinting at larger dynamic of an America evenly split between parties.

At the culmination of a campaign cycle marked by some of the most cataclysmic events in US history – and more shifts in momentum than the stock market – Democrats and Republicans head into Tuesday's elections at essentially the same position from which they began: tied.

The latest polls show that Republicans are likely to maintain or slightly increase their slim six-seat lead in the US House of Representatives – a rarity for the party holding the presidency in midterm elections. Democrats, for their part, are likely to pick up a handful of governorships, bringing control of the states even closer to parity. The Senate, where Democrats have a one-seat margin, remains too close to call – but analysts say whichever party wins, it's unlikely to be by more than a seat or two.

The likely persistence of the 50-50 divide that emerged in the 2000 election is in some ways remarkable considering the transforming events that have taken place over the past two years – including the attacks of Sept. 11, a series of major corporate scandals, the economic downturn, and the debate over war with Iraq.

Nor has the campaign lacked dramatic storylines: Republicans have had to contend with the retirement of conservative icons such as Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, while Democrats had last-minute replacements of New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, whose candidacy was sunk by ethical problems, and Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash. Yet after a record $1 billion spent by both sides, analysts say that perhaps what's most unusual about Campaign 2002 is just how close the two parties remain in the end.

"It's been like a roller coaster ride," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "We've had these gyrations and ups and downs and apparent shifts – and at the end of the day, we wound up where we began."

TO some extent, because the margins were so narrowly divided to begin with, both sides have largely played it safe, opting to protect the seats they had while going after just enough additional seats to gain control. This has largely meant eschewing broad ideological contrasts and grand themes in favor of personal differences and local issues.

"This is not [an election] about parties, this is not about ideology, this is not about one or two overriding issues driving the voters," says Mr. Rothenberg. "It's a race-by-race contest."

But it's also true that the major issues dominating this campaign cycle – national security and the economy – have worked essentially to cancel each other out. Typically, a weak economy should benefit the party out of power – in this case, the Democrats – since voters tend to blame the president for pocketbook concerns. Given that the president's party almost always loses seats in midterm elections anyway, Republicans by most measures ought to be heading for big losses.

Yet, with the exception of gubernatorial races, where escalating budget woes have clearly hurt incumbents (more of whom happen to be Republicans), Democrats admit they haven't gotten much traction from the economic slump.

"Voters don't really blame the president for the economy," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "They blame 9/11, they blame the war on terror, they blame the business cycle."

At the same time, on the other top issue – national security – polls consistently show Republicans hold an edge, which has further evened the political landscape.

"The concern about national security, and the trust of Republicans there, is what levels the playing field," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "Were it not for that, the playing field would lean toward the Democrats – but it doesn't."

Democrats say they've been hampered in their attempts to broadcast a strong economic message, finding themselves repeatedly drowned out by talk of war or other external events such as the Washington area sniper attacks.

But others argue that Democrats have also failed to offer a clear alternative to the Bush administration's economic policies. Many of the most vulnerable Democratic senators this cycle come from states that George W. Bush won in 2000 – and many of them voted for his tax cut and have continued to support it throughout the campaign.

"You've got people like [Democratic Sen.] Max Cleland in Georgia running ads talking about how he helped George Bush cut taxes," points out Mr. Ayres.

Aligning themselves with the president on taxes may help these senators hold onto their seats, but it has also blurred the differences between the parties. It has also made it harder for Democrats to articulate the kind of strong national message that many analysts believe they need to regain a majority in the House.

White House officials say Democrats have largely refrained from campaigning against Bush on many issues. "All over the country, Democrats are saying they are associated with Bush's policies," said White House political director Ken Mehlman at a recent Monitor breakfast. "His popularity has prevented the other side from trying to run an anti-Bush campaign."

Indeed, the president's popularity – which continues to hover around 67 percent – may prove to be the most important factor overall in these elections. Certainly, both sides agree, Mr. Bush hasn't hurt his party the way presidents often do in midterm elections.

Republicans see the amount of money Bush has raised for GOP candidates as a significant plus. They also say he's motivated base voters, which could help GOP turnout. In the past five days, Bush has made 17 stops in 15 states. After a visit by the president, GOP candidates have typically seen a slight bounce in the polls – and while this tends to fade after a few days, it could make the difference for some candidates in the final stretch.

• Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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