No one expected Kentucky's Senate race to be competitive, not until incumbent GOP Sen. Jim Bunning insisted on using a teleprompter at a remote site instead of facing his counterpart in person for a recent debate.
It gave a hook to a story that Democrats had been floating for weeks, citing other odd moments in the campaign: That the former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher is throwing wild balls and should be retired. Republicans call it character assassination.
Now, analysts are calling a race that Bunning once led by 26 points a possible Democratic pickup for challenger Daniel Mongiardo, who has fought to within a few points in recent polls. It's one of many races this year that are closer than predicted only a few weeks ago - shifts that go beyond ordinary end-of-campaign tightening of poll numbers.
Democrats still face an uphill fight for control of either the Senate, where they need a net gain of two seats, or the House, where they need a net gain of 12. But the GOP can't take for granted its lock on Capitol Hill, which had been expected to hold until 2006. In addition to Kentucky, eight other Senate races are still too close to call within a week of the vote. On the House side, a handful of races are also suddenly more volatile.
"The control of Congress has been in play for 10 years now, after a long period when control of the House wasn't in play and control of the Senate only rarely," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "It's part of the reason politics this year is so intense and nasty."
The last period when Congress saw a battle for control on this scale was in the 1950s, but then the parties were less sharply split ideologically.
Each newly close race could be the one to tip the balance of power on Capitol Hill. That prospect is opening floodgates of new money into congressional races in the last days of a national campaign that, including the presidential race, is expected to top $4 billion. In recent days, Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups such as MoveOn.org have poured nearly $1 million into the Kentucky race.
"A lot of races in the last 10 days have really tightened up," says Karen White of Emily's List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates.
One of the top new Democratic hopes in the House is businesswoman Melissa Bean, seeking an upset against 35-year incumbent Rep. Philip Crane (R) of Illinois. "A few months ago, no one would have returned her call. Now she's in a dead heat," says Ms. White.
Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth are far exceeding their own targets for congressional-race fundraising in the last days of this campaign. "We're definitely over $22 million, when we'd expected to raise $15 million," says David Keating, executive director of the antitax group.
"Republicans would wind up with 49 seats in the Senate or 55," depending on outcomes now too close to call, he says.
Senate races viewed as tossups in the last days of the campaign include Oklahoma, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Colorado, and Alaska. The political terrain in these states favors Republicans, as Bush won all of them in 2000. But the personal dynamics of these races are, in some cases, trumping partisan factors.
In Alaska, GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski is fighting an uphill battle against former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) - and against the charge that she owes her seat to nepotism, after her father, now-Gov. Frank Murkowski, appointed her to succeed him in the Senate. Another lively hope for a Democratic pickup is Colorado, where newly mobilized Hispanic voters are expected to give the edge to Attorney General Ken Salazar, who faces Coors Brewery chairman Pete Coors (R).
On the House side, the conventional wisdom is that a turnover is out of reach for Democrats.
Still, the past couple of weeks have seen some surprises. One is the political resilience of Democrats in Texas, who had been expected to lose five seats due to redistricting by the Republican-controlled legislature. Instead, well-funded campaigns have brought Democratic Reps. Chet Edwards, Max Sandlin, and Nick Lampson within range.
Even Reps. Martin Frost and Charles Stenholm, senior Democrats viewed as hopelessly out of sync with the political landscape of their new districts, are running strong campaigns. "It will be very hard for Frost and Stenholm to win, but don't count them out," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University in Washington.
The late-breaking ethical woes of House majority leader Tom DeLay, who engineered the Texas redistricting from Washington, is adding to the intensity of these races, and could help voter turnout for Democrats. The 10-term lawmaker was cautioned by the House ethics committee three times this month, and last week was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury looking into illegal corporate contributions in Texas.
In addition, National Democrats are trying to use DeLay's ethical troubles to bash moderate Republicans, such as Connecticut Reps. Robert Simmons and Christopher Shays, who is counting on strong ties to constituents to pull him through an unexpectedly tight race.
In the end, these close congressional races will be determined by winds at the top of the ticket and by turnout - a particularly volatile factor this year with many newly registered voters. In Wilmington, N.C., which is not a presidential battleground state, new voters and volunteers nonetheless are streaming into a small, satellite storefront for the Kerry-Edwards ticket.
"Most of these people were not for Kerry, but were adamantly opposed to Bush, and did not know what to do with their energy," says director Lynn Shoemaker, who claims 635 volunteers, many new to politics. Turnout of new voters could help Democrats in the state's Senate and congressional races, as well.
"Turnout is the wild card in this election. I expect it's going to be up substantially, which could be helpful to Democrats like Chet Edwards and Martin Frost in Texas," says Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park.
"Still, if I were a Democrat in Texas, I'd run for cover," he adds. "Aside from a few places, I can't see increased registration enough to overturn Tom DeLay's artful handiwork."