Democrats' hopes rise for 2006 election

The party is uniting around a theme for the midterm contest: a GOP 'culture of corruption.'

Democrats on Capitol Hill see their best hope in a decade to sweep back into power in midterm elections on the coattails of Republican ethical woes.

The party remains deeply divided on issues ranging from the war in Iraq and government spending to hot-button cultural issues. But Demo-crats are uniting around a common theme for the 2006 elections, one cribbed from their rivals' playbook: an end to the majority party's "culture of corruption."

In the wake of indictments of House majority leader Tom DeLay and reports of an SEC investigation into possible insider trading by Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Democrats are also accelerating plans to set forth their own version of a "Contract With America."

Released just weeks before the November vote, the 1994 Contract With America gave GOP candidates a national platform for reform - and a net gain of 52 seats in the House. With President Bush's approval ratings at record lows and 59 percent of Americans saying the nation is on the wrong track, Democrats hope to ride a similar wave back to power.

"We're coming together at the very time when the country is tired of one-party rule," says Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

"Democrats see a door opening," says Jennifer Duffy, who covers the Senate for the Cook Political Report, in Washington.

Boosted by the poor political climate for Republicans, Democrats claim a banner recruiting year and say they are on track for another record campaign season for fundraising. House Democrats claim they have 40 candidates set to run in competitive districts in 2006, compared with fewer than 10 at a similar time in the run-up to the 2004 vote.

"We're raising more money than we've ever done before and we're recruiting more candidates," says Bill Burton, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Meanwhile, heavily recruited Republicans are turning down statewide campaign bids.

This month, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven opted out of races to challenge incumbent Democratic senators. Political analysts say it's a sign that promising GOP candidates are reluctant to jump into races in a year that could be defined by an anticorruption backlash against Republicans.

But to capitalize on the negative political climate for Republicans, Democrats will need to bridge vast differences on issues ranging from morals and social values to spending and the war in Iraq.

"It was much easier to get a consensus between GOP Washington and GOP countryside in 1994 than it will be for Demo crats in 2006," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in N.J.

One of the biggest rifts among Democrats is over the war in Iraq. "There is an unspoken but enormously wide gap between the views of Democrats in Washington and Democrats in the country on Iraq," says Mr. Baker.

Another dividing point is how to curb the deficits. While many Democrats could rally around a platform to block GOP plans to make repeal of the estate tax permanent, there is less agreement on how and where to cut spending.

"It is clear that the political environment right now looks bleak for Republicans. At the same time, I don't think that the ethics issue alone is enough to run on solely," says Amy Walter, a congressional analyst at the Cook Political Report.

"But it becomes part of a bigger narrative that Democrats need to be able to sell: that it's time for a change," she adds.

The effort to draw together such a narrative is now a top priority for Democrats, who hope to release a blueprint by mid-November. Before the DeLay indictments broke, the delivery date had been January.

Republicans still enjoy advantages in the layout of congressional districts. They are defending 15 Senate seats, 14 with incumbents; Democrats are defending 18, including four open seats. The GOP says it has recruited top candidates for those open seats.

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