With one week to go, many Senate, House races very close

Just-completed national polling suggests a wind shift in favor of Democrats going into the last week before this year's critical midterm elections. It probably won't be sufficient to help House Democrats capture a majority, but it could help Democrats in their nip-and-tuck fight to retain control of the Senate. And it may even give the party an extra push for what's expected to be a successful night in the gubernatorial races.

While the results of the combined Oct. 15-17 and Oct. 25-27 Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report national polls showed Republicans leading on the generic ballot test by one point among the 923 likely voters, there appeared to be considerable movement toward Democrats in the second of the two combined polls.

During the first survey, conducted Oct. 15-17, the two parties were tied among the 773 registered voters with 44 percent each, while Republicans held a four-point advantage among the 439 likely voters, 47 percent to 43 percent.

But in the second poll, taken Oct. 25-27, among the 754 registered voters, Democrats had a six-point advantage, 46 percent to 40 percent, and a two-point advantage among most likely voters, 45 percent to 43 percent.

Ipsos-Reid President Thomas Riehle noted, "Democrats claimed a small lead among likely voters back in August, but every poll since then has been a little worse for the Democrats than the one before-until the results this weekend, when that trend came to an end. If this turnaround holds up in our interviews Tuesday through Thursday, we'd expect to see Democrats finally back to a very slim lead among likely voters heading into the final weekend. That's the very rock bottom minimum an out-party should expect from a midterm electorate, and maybe that's all the Democrats can hope for this year."

The margins of error in the combined surveys are 2.6 percent for registered voters and 3.3 percent for likely voters. In the individual tracks, the margins of error are 3.6 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively, for registered and likely voters. Two more Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report polls will be conducted between now and Election Day.

Where Things Stand In The House

Going from the macro-political level to the micro-political level, the latest Cook Political Report rating of each of the 435 House races show 202 seats that are leaning, likely or solidly in the Democratic column, 217 seats that are leaning, likely or solidly in the Republican column. With 218 seats necessary for theoretical control of the body, Democrats would have to win every single one of the 16 remaining toss-up races, something that would be extraordinarily difficult in the absence of a tsunami working in their favor.

While it is interesting that the latest numbers would suggest that something might just be starting to gel for Democrats in terms of national tides, it is exceedingly unlikely that it would be enough to get them over the top in the House.

It's worth keeping in mind, however, that even if Democrats won every single one of the 16 toss-up races, they would still have to deal with conservative Texas Democrat Ralph Hall, who has said that he would cast his ballot for the more conservative of the two candidates for speaker of the House. Presumably that would be the current Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert unless Democrats had the good sense to field either Hall or fellow conservative Texan Democrat, Charlie Stenholm, for speaker. Also worth noting is that there will almost certainly be a Dec. 7 run-off in Louisiana's open 5th District between Democrat Rodney Alexander and one of three Republicans.

The Senate's State Of Affairs

The tragic death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) in a plane crash Friday morning adds even more uncertainty to an already impossible-to-predict fight for control of the Senate. Prior to the crash, Republicans seemed to have the tiniest of advantages in the Minnesota fight between Wellstone and Republican challenger Norm Coleman.

Although the situation remains far from settled, it seems almost certain that former vice president and Sen. Walter Mondale will replace Wellstone on the ballot. If he does run, the conventional wisdom is that there won't be much in the way of a formal campaign. If the situation following the death in 2000 of Missouri Democratic governor and Senate nominee Mel Carnahan is any guide, Democrats can be expected to run an ad or two that both promotes Mondale and remembers Wellstone.

Republicans are somewhat bewildered that Majority Leader Tom Daschle took a shot at Coleman on Sunday while at Wellstone headquarters and contend that Daschle opened the door for Republicans. A Public Opinion Strategies survey taken Sunday night showed Mondale ahead of Coleman, 45 percent to 43 percent, results that were duplicated in another GOP survey.

Republicans also learned a few lessons from Missouri and are likely to run a respectful and positive, but aggressive campaign. There might be some questions raised about Mondale's age and whether he represents the state's past, but they might not be as aggressive as otherwise might be expected, particularly since time is not on Republicans' side. It is so hard to predict how this situation will play out over the next couple of days, but one thing is for sure: Coleman is the underdog.

The races in Missouri, where former Rep. Jim Talent (R) is challenging Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan, and in South Dakota, where Sen. Tim Johnson (D) is battling GOP Rep. John Thune, continue to be very close. Both sides contend that they have the advantage, but acknowledge that it is within the margin of error. In Missouri, Republicans are particularly encouraged by Talent's standing in the polls and Carnahan's bumpy couple of weeks. In South Dakota, Johnson and Democrats have switched to positive advertising, which they say is paying dividends, but Republicans argue that Thune is in better shape going into the last week.

Democrats seem to have precarious leads in Arkansas, where state Attorney General Mark Pryor (D) is challenging GOP incumbent Sen. Tim Hutchinson, and in New Hampshire in the race between Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and GOP Rep. John Sununu. Arkansas polling over the last couple of months has shown Hutchinson trailing Pryor, but Republicans contend that the incumbent has closed this race to within the margin of error. Still, it is not a positive sign that Hutchinson (or any incumbent) is trailing his challenger. Both parties agree that New Hampshire is within the margin of error today, but Shaheen seems to be ever so slightly ahead of Sununu.

Having split those hairs, the fight in Colorado between Republican incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard and Democrat Tom Strickland looks absolutely even. Two polls in Colorado over the weekend show how close the contest is: one survey had Allard ahead while Strickland led in the other. Both were within the margin of error and hovering around the 40 percent mark.

In Louisiana, most polls show Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu with about 44 percent or 45 percent of the vote, increasing the chances that she will not win the 50 percent of the vote necessary to avoid a Dec. 7 run-off. At this point, state Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell, who trails far behind with 16 percent to 20 percent of the vote in what is effectively a four-way race (there are five minor candidates who could drain off another couple of percentage points), appears most likely to make the second round.

How Landrieu would fare in a run-off is anyone's guess. She would seem to be a far stronger candidate than Terrell or, for that matter, the other two Republicans in the race, but this could become a faceless race if there is no net change in the Senate on Nov. 5. In that kind of contest, the strengths and weaknesses of the respective candidates would become subordinate to a party preference for control of the Senate or between Daschle and President Bush.

Democrats are demonstrating some new optimism in the Texas race between former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D) and GOP Attorney General John Cornyn, arguing that polls show the race closing and that early turnout is heavy in some Democratic-leaning counties. Republicans disagree and say that Cornyn has opened up a comfortable lead.

Of the second-tier races, Republicans are more optimistic about Rep. Saxby Chambliss' prospects of defeating Democratic Sen. Max Cleland in Georgia. Both sides acknowledge that the race has closed to the low single digits, but Democrats argue that now that they are starting to hit Chambliss, Cleland will prevail. Democrats are focused on the open-seat contest in North Carolina between Erskine Bowles (D) and Elizabeth Dole (R), arguing that they have closed the contest to four points. Republicans acknowledge that the race has closed, but say that Bowles will be hard pressed to get to 50 percent since Dole has run a strong campaign and remains well liked.

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