Bush aims for momentum in 2006

But voter dissatisfaction fuels Democratic hopes of gaining seats in Congress.

The political countdown to 2006 is turning out to be a numbers game where everyone can find signs of hope.

After hitting new lows in the polls last month, President Bush has grabbed a bit of political momentum with an uptick in his December job approval ratings - though he remains solidly below 50 percent.

Democrats, for their part, are optimistic that 2006 could be their year and that conditions remain ripe for a big shift in next November's congressional elections. A voter backlash may not swing control of either house of Congress their way, but Democrats say it could be enough to narrow the Republicans' already slim majority.

Since Mr. Bush controls the agenda, the Democrats' strategy will depend on events on the ground, political analysts say. The best they can do is to "position themselves with money and grass roots [organization] to be ready to capitalize on negative events," such as civil war in Iraq or a US economic downturn, says political analyst Charles Jones, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin.

Bush arrested his yearlong decline in the polls by aggressively pushing his message - not once, but repeatedly - on Iraq, the economy, and national security.

"This president is doing more of that, making his point over and over again, and that's a formula that can work, but you can repeat yourself till you're blue in the face, and if events go badly, there's nothing you can do," says Professor Jones, who believes that Bush has so far handled the controversy over warrantless government eavesdropping well by stressing his commitment to keeping Americans safe. Likewise, "for any new initiatives, he's got to find a way to set those in the context of what people are worried about: security."

Still, for Democrats, there is fertile ground in poll numbers that gauge the public's view of whether the nation is on the "right track" and in the so-called generic vote for Congress. A recent NPR survey, conducted jointly by Democratic and Republican polling firms, shows that only 35 percent of the public thinks the nation is on the right track and that Democrats hold an 8-point edge in voters' preference for Congress. Democrats also win the battle for intensity, with 42 percent of voters strongly disapproving of Bush's performance in office, compared with 26 percent strongly approving.

These factors point to the potential for a "change" election - as in a political tsunami, a la 1994, that sweeps the incumbent party from control of the House and the Senate, says Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster on the NPR survey.

"There will be big shifts in the Congress," Mr. Greenberg says in an e-mail. "I just don't know whether the wave will be big enough to get past the incumbent protections," he adds, referring to the way most congressional districts are drawn to protect sitting members and the advantages of incumbency, such as fundraising.

The good news for Republicans is that the Democrats' mantra about a GOP "culture of corruption" has not sunk in with most voters. Indictments in the White House and Congress, plus the brewing scandal around lobbyist Jack Abramoff, remain inside-the-Beltway issues, and are seen by the public as part of political business as usual. In the NPR survey, 65 percent of voters blamed Republicans and Democrats equally for "problems with ethics and corruption" in Washington.

For Democrats to take advantage of their opponents' ethics woes, "Republicans have to make the mistake of throwing more wood on the fire, because now it's just ashes," says Glen Bolger, the Republican pollster on the NPR survey.

Mr. Bolger says he's troubled by the Democrats' solid advantage on the generic House ballot, but congressional approval is not at a level where it's a "throw-the-bums-out" election. He notes that in 1994, approval was in the low 20s, while today it is at 43 percent. "Clearly, there's some danger ahead," Bolger says. "The challenge Democrats have is they lack enough opportunities [to take over seats]; they lack a coherent positive message; and they lack leadership and unity."

On the controversy over the revelation that Bush authorized eavesdropping of domestic electronic communications without judicial warrants, Democrats need to be cautious, analysts say. The public still views the war on terror as one of the president's strongest issues. Since the 9/11 attacks, Americans say they have been willing to forgo some civil liberties in the name of security.

"Democrats could potentially put themselves in a corner on this issue," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Since Vietnam, they've always been seen as weak on national security. This is not the time for them to be talking about individual liberties."

January is expected to be an unusually busy month in Washington, including confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, planned hearings on federal eavesdropping, renewal of the antiterror Patriot Act, and the president's State of the Union address. As he seeks to build on his December bump in the polls, analysts expect him to focus on unfinished business - foremost, the transformation of Iraq, the war on terror, tax reform, and immigration.

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