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Range of Possibilities

If you want to know how much pain the midterm elections are likely to inflict on the Republican Party, keep your eyes on the national spotlight. If, for the next three weeks, attention remains focused on the war in Iraq and on congressional scandals, the Republicans could lose 20 to 30 seats -- or perhaps even more.

The spotlight of public attention could shift again, however, as it did in late August, away from the war in Iraq, scandals, and other issues that hurt the GOP, and back toward turf much more favorable to Republican candidates, such as the war on terrorism, national security, and falling gasoline prices. If that happens, the Republicans might be able to limit their losses in the House to seven or so seats.

In short, we need to be aware of how bad this election could be for Republicans, while also keeping in mind that politics is a volatile business. The spotlight could shift another time or two before November 7. Anyone who focuses only on the Republicans' vulnerability or only on the impossibility of knowing what will hold the public's attention in the coming weeks is missing half of the story.

How bad could this midterm election be for the Republican Party? Right now, identifying 20 to 25 House seats that the GOP could lose is fairly easy. Three of the party's seats are pretty much gone already: in Arizona's 8th District, where Republican Jim Kolbe is retiring; in Florida's 16th District, which Mark Foley represented until he resigned; and in Texas's 22nd District, where Tom DeLay's name is still on the ballot even though he resigned in disgrace and is not running.

The Cook Political Report lists all three as "lean Democratic." With those three seats in their pocket, Democrats need to pick up just 12 more to clinch a majority.

The Cook Political Report now counts 25 GOP seats -- eight that are open and 17 that incumbents are trying to hold -- as toss-ups. The Republicans will probably be able to keep a few of the 25, but probably not many; they are very likely to lose a majority of them. In addition to the three listed above, Democrats could grab a dozen of that 25 without much difficulty if the current political climate persists. That adds up to 28 GOP seats that are over or very near the edge.

Another 15 Republican-held House seats merely "lean Republican." These are competitive races, but on a really bad night the GOP could lose half of them. Another 16 GOP seats are identified as "likely Republican." If a large, national anti-GOP wave takes shape, it could sweep away some of these.

In all, 59 Republican-held House seats are possibly vulnerable. No one seriously expects the Democrats to gain 59 seats, or even 39 seats. But if national attention remains focused on topics damaging to the GOP, and if Election Night turns truly horrific for that party, Democrats could conceivably pick up 30 to 35 House seats.

In the Senate, the range of possible outcomes is obviously much narrower. It will be shocking if Republican Sens. Conrad Burns of Montana and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania win re-election, and surprising (but not shocking) if Republican Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island win new terms.

So it's not difficult to foresee four GOP Senate seats shifting to the Democratic column. Three other Republican seats are teetering on the edge -- those of Sens. George Allen of Virginia and Jim Talent of Missouri and the open seat in Tennessee where, at best, Republicans are running even.

But could Republicans pick off a Democratic seat and thus raise the number of GOP seats that the Democrats need to win from six to seven? Republicans' chances in Minnesota, Washington state, and even Maryland no longer look good.

The GOP still has some chance of toppling Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in Michigan. But Republicans' best opportunity is in New Jersey, even though appointed Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez appears to have stopped his fall and regained some of the ground he lost to state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. That race is far from over. In the end, control of the Senate will most likely come down to Missouri, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia.

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