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Feature Attraction

I'm no film critic, but I do know a bit about politics. So, when I see a movie that truly captures some period in our nation's political life, I like to let others know about it: Anyone who loves politics ought to see the remake of All the King's Men.

Based on the classic Robert Penn Warren novel -- which was made into a movie in 1949 starring Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, the central, Huey Long-like character -- the new film does an amazing job of depicting a fiery, Depression-era Louisiana populist who comes to see the ends as justifying the means.

James Carville, one of the executive producers, came up with the idea to remake the film. I was among a number of people he invited to see a rough cut of the movie last June. I was blown away by it then, and I think it got only better with a bit more editing and the addition of the final music sound track.

Before seeing the rough cut, I'd been dubious about the idea of Sean Penn playing Willie Stark, just as I had been when Paul Newman was cast as Louisiana Gov. Earl Long in another political classic, Blaze. But Penn, like Newman before him, gives an extraordinary performance. At the end of the new movie, politicos in the audience were speechless, overwhelmed by the film's power. Watching the remade All the King's Men is an awesome experience if you love the craft of politics.

In fact, sitting through that extraordinary movie has quite a bit in common with keeping close track of this year's election. As a Washington attorney recently remarked, "For anyone who loves politics, this is a fascinating year." Indeed, we've already had more twists and turns, more plots and subplots, than an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

Think about it: We began seeing the political environment turn against the GOP last year, yet a race-by-race analysis found little evidence at that point that Democrats had a plausible chance of capturing the House, let alone the Senate. After all, in September 2005, The Cook Political Report listed just three Republican-held House seats as "toss-ups," but put four Democratic seats in that vulnerable category.

Gradually, the stormy weather for the GOP at 30,000 feet made it to ground level, affecting a large number of contests. Eventually, 20 GOP seats were rated as toss-ups or as "leaning Democratic." (The Democrats need just 15.) Not a single Democratic-held seat was comparably vulnerable.

But in recent weeks, the storm system that appeared to have the makings of a Category 4 hurricane -- one likely to cost the GOP the House -- weakened just a touch. Yet 20 GOP House seats are still quite vulnerable -- and no Democratic seat is.

In the Senate, things look really tough for Republican incumbents Conrad Burns of Montana, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Mike DeWine of Ohio. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., is only marginally better off than those four. And the GOP has only a razor-thin edge -- if it has any at all -- in Tennessee, where it is trying to hold the seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist. Who knows what is happening in Virginia, where accusations of racism continue to dog Republican incumbent George Allen. And Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., remains quite vulnerable.

But Democrats should be increasingly worried about one of their own, appointed incumbent Robert Menendez of New Jersey. The odds that the Democrats will lose one of their seats have never been higher -- meaning they would have to take seven GOP seats to net the six needed to take control of the chamber. Democrat Debbie Stabenow's re-election bid in Michigan still merits watching, as does the Maryland race to fill the seat being vacated by Democrat Paul Sarbanes.

If the public and the news media continue to focus on terrorism, national security, and falling gasoline prices -- as they have for the last six weeks -- the GOP will hold the House and should hold the Senate, with a couple of seats to spare in both cases. If attention instead turns back to the war in Iraq, and to the economic concerns of workers who feel that they just aren't getting ahead, the House will turn and the Senate might flip.

My hunch is that the pendulum will swing halfway back, giving the Democrats a better than even chance of taking the House but making the Senate a longer shot.

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