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Dead Heat

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With a presidential race that looks likely to end in a photo finish, a fight for Senate control that appears increasingly competitive, and -- if you believe Democrats -- a closely divided House that might actually be in play, both parties are dreaming of achieving the political equivalent of a hat trick in 2004. Even though I doubt the Democrats have any real chance of breaking the Republican lock on the House, this election is proving to be fascinating and unpredictable.

Recent presidential job-approval ratings indicate that President Bush is less popular at this point in his term than were recent presidents who went on to win re-election, but that he's more popular than those who eventually lost. And most national polls taken before John Kerry tapped John Edwards showed Bush in a virtual tie with Kerry -- at about 45 percent apiece, give or take 3 points depending upon the poll and the week.

Their contest certainly seems headed toward an extremely close outcome. In fact, the nation is so evenly divided along ideological and partisan lines that the election would probably look tight even if we didn't yet know the identities of the nominees. What's different from four years ago? Voters and analysts alike now have a much better appreciation of just how close a presidential election can be.

What we are seeing these days is a major rotation in the issues that are likely to be most crucial in this election. A year ago, Bush's strength was foreign policy; his weakness was the economy -- specifically, anemic job creation. Since then, the economy has turned around somewhat, although not as much as the initial jobs reports this spring made it appear. We have now had three consecutive months of decline in net jobs created.

But Iraq is now Bush's biggest liability, because of rising voter doubts about the wisdom of going to war and about how the administration has handled the war. Whether the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis will diminish American costs and casualties is unknown, but most experts expect the situation in Iraq to remain the same, or worsen, between now and November 2.

Senate Democrats began this election cycle in an unenviable situation. With 51 seats, the Republicans have a slim majority, but Democrats must defend five open seats in the South. And for a long time, Republicans had only one open seat, in Illinois, and one endangered incumbent, in Alaska. But then, Republican senators in Colorado and Oklahoma announced their retirements. Both states are hosting divisive GOP primaries, so the Democrats' chances of taking control have improved somewhat. The challenge Democrats face is great. But when competitive Senate races are examined one at a time, the GOP hold on the chamber looks less sure.

Moreover, some Democrats are working themselves into a frenzy, arguing that their party is riding a wave -- that two important special-election victories in a row, plus favorable national poll numbers on the generic congressional ballot test, indicate that House Democrats have enough momentum to erase the Republicans' 11-seat advantage and take control of that chamber.

Yet even though the Democratic pickups of previously Republican seats in the Kentucky and South Dakota special elections were impressive, both contests were largely decided by local, not national, factors. And although two national polls (both of which seem to have included too many Democrats) suggest that Democrats hold a 13-point or a 19-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot test, many more polls put the advantage in low-to-middle single digits.

So, House Democrats may have a gentle breeze at their backs, but to overcome an 11-seat Republican advantage, when only about three dozen districts are competitive, would require hurricane-force assistance. Indeed, the first challenge for House Democrats is just to stay even, by picking up enough Republican seats in 49 states to offset their seemingly inevitable loss of three to six seats in Texas.

 
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