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Down to the Wire

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With little more than a week to go, the hurricane roaring toward the Republican Party looks like a Category 4 or 5. A Cat 4 would probably cost the GOP the House, and a 5 would be powerful enough to flip the Senate as well.

Of course, at any moment, some foreign or domestic event could shift the public's attention away from Iraq and congressional scandals, and toward something less hazardous to the GOP.

Although the national wind is blowing against them, Republicans are improving their standing in some key races -- in the tight-as-a-tick open-seat Senate contest in Tennessee, for example, and in Republican Sen. Conrad Burns's re-election bid in Montana (though he remains behind).

At this point in the struggle, both parties' campaign committees are making agonizing, Sophie's Choice-style decisions about which candidates to cut off so that precious resources can go to more-promising contests.

The choice facing Senate Republicans was whether to invest in horribly expensive New Jersey or fund slightly longer shots in Michigan or Maryland. It appears that they have decided to invest a chunk of the available resources in the Garden State contest that pits GOP state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. against appointed Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who has been plagued with ethical and legal problems.

To advertise statewide, a campaign must buy TV time in both the New York City media market -- the costliest in the nation -- and the Philadelphia market, the fourth-most expensive. That combination costs about $2.5 million a week.

Now that Republicans are making a financial commitment to New Jersey, what does that mean for other races? At the moment, the Republican party committees aren't helping Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania or Burns in Montana.

Republicans certainly can't decrease their spending in Tennessee, where they are finally making a bit of headway; or in Missouri, where Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill is statistically tied with GOP incumbent Jim Talent; or in Virginia, where Republican Sen. George Allen is only 2 to 4 points ahead of his challenger, Jim Webb.

Strategists contend that putting money into Maryland and Michigan remains an option, and such decisions may have been made by now.

For all the GOP's big talk about its vaunted spending advantage, it doesn't have quite enough to deal with all of the problems that have cropped up, especially when it comes to the Senate races. So the party is making tough calls. While Democrats have similarly difficult decisions to make, at least they have the wind at their backs.

Just as Democrats found in 1980 and 1994, when the national climate was very much against them and voters refused to give them the benefit of the doubt, the GOP is finding how difficult it is to make headway, no matter how much money it pumps into competitive races.

One Republican consultant told me that although his clients are practically "carpet bombing" -- as he phrased it -- their opponents with negative advertising, they are finding it very difficult to create unfavorable impressions of Democratic candidates. "This cycle," he said, "they are Teflon, and we are Velcro."

Attacks that would normally destroy Democrats are not having much effect. Conversely, Democratic attacks on GOP candidates are drawing blood in many races.

Every day, every hour, we keep waiting to see whether something will alter the trajectory of this election, which now seems headed toward costing the GOP at least four -- more likely, five or six -- Senate seats, as well as at least 20, and perhaps as many as 35 or more, House seats. Democrats need six seats to gain Senate control and 15 to capture the House. They would be foolish to count their victories before they happen, though, and Republicans would be equally ill-advised to give up on either chamber.

This campaign season is vastly different from what it was a month ago. In the final days, the hurricane over the horizon could strengthen, or it could veer away from the GOP majorities it is now threatening.

 
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