Is GOP confidence for real?

Countering public polls, top Republicans forecast holding both House and Senate.

"We're going to win," President Bush asserted confidently in his latest press conference, when asked about the midterm elections.

Vice President Dick Cheney tells interviewers he is "optimistic" about the Republican Party's ability to hold on to control of both the House and the Senate.

But the voice that gives Democrats the biggest chills – days before an election that by most public indications favors the Democrats in their quest to win their first House majority in 12 years – is that of Karl Rove, the architect of GOP victories in the past three elections. Mr. Rove has seen the private polls from individual races, he tells interviewers, and the data point "strongly" in one direction: a Republican House and a Republican Senate.

Is this a classic bluff, designed to psych out the opposition and energize demoralized Republicans who might be tempted to sit out the Nov. 7 vote? Or do Rove and his bosses really know something that's not knowable by the rest of us?

"No matter what the polls say or the mood of the country, no president rolls over and plays dead in midterm elections and lays himself open to the charge of surrender to the opposition," says John Gizzi, political editor of the conservative weekly Human Events.

The rock-solid pronouncements of Rove, who cites not just internal polls but also the GOP's advantage in fund-raising and organization, buttress the predictable positive outlook from the president and vice president, and feed into a reputation for success running campaigns built over decades.

"Rove is relying on the Rove mystique," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "A lot of Democrats are paranoid about it. ... Conversely, Republicans also have the same belief, and that's what gives them hope and confidence and keeps them working. If they thought they were surely going to lose, they wouldn't work as hard."

The idea that there are polls suggesting an outcome wildly different from what most political analysts – including many Republican strategists – are saying may not be such a big stretch, Mr. Pitney says. The difference may be in interpretation: It's possible, he says, someone looking at the same numbers might come to a different conclusion.

The answer on who was right, it can be argued, will be known only after the actual votes are cast – but even then, if the Democrats do manage to take over at least the House, Bush's advisers could still say that a week or two earlier, the data pointed in the Republicans' favor.

Among those who make a living looking at each race with as nonpartisan an eye as possible and predicting the outcome, the Democrats do appear on track to retake control of the House, maybe by just a few seats. In the 435-seat House, the Democrats need to make a net gain of just 15 seats. As of Oct. 30, one such prognosticator, Charlie Cook, sees "no ebb in the wave" favoring the Democrats and predicts that, barring a dramatic event, the GOP will lose at least 20 to 35 seats in the House and at least four in the Senate, with "five or six most likely." For the Democrats to retake the 100-seat Senate, a bigger leap than retaking the House, they need a net gain of six seats.

Stuart Rothenberg, another nonpartisan handicapper, projects Democratic gains in the House of 18 to 28 seats – or more. For the Senate, he projects Democratic gains of four to seven seats. Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, says the Democrats will gain well more than the 15 seats needed for the House and is on the edge of taking over the Senate.

Still, no pundit makes predictions without a caveat. The latest bump for the Democrats came Monday with a comment by John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, that was interpreted as a slight against US troops in Iraq. Sen. Kerry said, "Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." Kerry called it a botched joke.

The controversy has put Kerry back in the middle of GOP campaign rhetoric at a time when Democrats would rather be focusing on Republicans vulnerabilities. But at least, some Democrats say, it keeps the focus on Iraq – the No. 1 issue for voters and a net negative for Republican candidates.

Ultimately, Republicans point to several factors that could make the difference on election day: The Democratic "wave" has been a long time in building, and no Republican incumbent can be caught off guard – unlike in 1994, when the Democrats were swept out of power in Congress in a wave they did not see coming. Republicans maintain a funding advantage. At the end of August, in 30 of the most competitive races, Republicans had $33 million cash on hand versus $14 million for the Democrats, says Rove. The Republicans also tout their so-called 72-hour turnout operation. There have been reports of greater early-voting turnout by Republicans than by Democrats.

"Those are all the strengths of a Republican team," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "They have not said the climate is favorable or that the odds favor them or that there's not a bigger challenge ahead." But, he adds, if the Democrats don't retake the House next Tuesday, "they should hang it up as a political party. If they can't win in this climate, when can they win?"

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