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Shifting Election Outlook

As the pace of this election picks up, I feel the frustration of a still photographer trying to capture a marathon. A snapshot of the race at any given moment becomes obsolete the instant it is taken, and it reveals nothing about what will happen later in the contest.

After holding steady at 38 percent in all of the major national polls taken in July and August, President Bush's job-approval rating climbed to an average of 41 percent in the eight polls taken so far in September. That includes the USA Today/Gallup poll released on September 19 that put Bush's approval at 44 percent.

For Republicans, the obvious good news is that the president, who unquestionably has been a liability for his party's candidates, is up an average of 3 points, just above the psychologically critical 40 percent mark. Anything below 40 is considered toxic for a president's party.

The bad news for the GOP is that 41 percent approval is still lousy. It's 1 point below where President Clinton was at this stage in 1994, according to Gallup, and below five of Clinton's job-approval ratings in Gallup Polls between mid-September 1994 and the November election that was so disastrous for his Democratic Party. Bush's current 41 percent score merely ties him with Clinton's sixth rating in the run-up to the 1994 election.

On the generic congressional ballot test, which asks voters which party's House candidate they intend to support, Democrats ran 13 points ahead of Republicans in June, 11 points in July, and 13 points in August. This month, however, Democrats' average lead is just 7 points.

The most eye-popping result in the new USA Today/Gallup poll indicated that the two major parties are running even among "likely" voters. Among registered voters, Democrats were up by 9 points in that survey. This result diverges from most other polling-where this year's likely voters tend to be more Democratic than registered voters as a whole.

While none of the pollsters I contacted this week think that the parties are truly tied on the generic ballot test, Republican pollsters insist that the overall contest has tightened. Democratic pollsters don't see any tightening.

My guess is that Democrats' actual edge on the generic question is down to 6 or 7 points. The nation's focus on terrorism, prompted in part by the London arrests and the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, has probably helped Bush and his party. And the shift in the national spotlight to something other than the increasingly gloomy news from Iraq is certainly helpful to the GOP.

What's more, the fairly dramatic decline of gasoline prices over the past six weeks couldn't have hurt the Republicans. And some observers think that Democratic attacks have begun to antagonize and energize a GOP base that has been pretty apathetic, if not disillusioned.

The pendulum of conventional wisdom probably swung too far toward predicting a Democratic triumph on November 7. Suggestions that "if the election were held today" Republicans would likely lose the House were widely overinterpreted to mean "Republicans are toast." Such forecasts ignore the volatility of American politics.

One Republican pollster describes the new situation as "less worse" than before. And perhaps it is apt to say that for Republicans, the outlook remains bad but is no longer horrific. Some signs indicate that struggling GOP House members have improved their situations in Pennsylvania. Elsewhere, though, Republican fortunes in individual races don't appear to be getting better.

Because the national undertow that's pulling Republicans down has weakened somewhat, it has become less likely that the GOP will lose more than 20 House seats. And the Democrats look a bit less likely to reach the tipping point of a 15-seat gain. We haven't changed our ratings for any House race, though.

In the Senate, Republicans will probably lose three to five seats. A loss of six, enough to give the Democrats control, remains possible though.

So, as the soap operas love to say, tune back in tomorrow, when we'll see another tantalizing snapshot.

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