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The Trail to Triumph

In announcing that it raised a record $16 million in hard money in the second quarter, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee continued to pound home the message that House Democrats are well positioned to reclaim the speaker's gavel this year.

But navigating the road to victory remains very complicated for Democrats. Yes, a pro-Democratic environment could put into play such Republican-held swing districts as Jim Gerlach's suburban PA-06 or Heather Wilson's Albuquerque-based NM-01. But Democrats still need to win in districts that are unlikely to be affected by a pro-Democratic national trend, such as those where five incumbent Texas Democrats are in tough races, and Republican-leaning rural districts like Colorado's 3rd District and Washington's 5th District. And, whereas House Republican strategists were worried a few weeks ago about the environment for their candidates, they say that the bleeding has stopped.

So how could Democrats pick up the 11 seats (or, actually, 12 seats, since Democrats are not contesting a new seat in Texas) that they need to win the majority? First, they need to hold on to all three of their competitive open seats -- in PA-13, KY-04, and LA-07 -- as well as those of at least two of their five endangered incumbents in Texas.

In PA-13, Democratic state Sen. Allyson Schwartz has the advantage over Republican ophthalmologist Melissa Brown, the GOP's 2002 nominee, in a district that Al Gore carried with 56 percent of the vote. In Kentucky's 4th District, Democrats have an attractive and well-known candidate in former TV anchor Nick Clooney, but he still has a tough battle to hold on to a district that gave George W. Bush 61 percent of its vote. In Louisiana's conservative 7th District, Democratic Rep. Chris John never had to worry about significant Republican challengers during his four terms. With John departing, Republicans have a well-funded -- though little-known and untested -- candidate in heart surgeon Charles Boustany.

In Texas, Democratic insiders point to seven-term Rep. Chet Edwards as the endangered Democrat most likely to win. He has proven his ability to prevail in tough districts and tough political climates. But GOP state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth has the district's demographics on her side, and she has already proved that she can handle the rough-and-tumble of a campaign. GOP polls in three Texas districts (Rep. Nick Lampson's 2nd District, Rep. Max Sandlin's 1st District, and Rep. Charles Stenholm's 19th district) show the Democratic incumbent trailing.

If Democrats win those races, they would then need to pick up the six competitive GOP-held open seats: LA-03, NY-27, CO-03, PA-15, WA-05, and WA-08. District demographics and solid candidates make LA-03, NY-27, CO-03, and WA-08 the strongest opportunities for Democrats. By the numbers, the Buffalo-based NY-27 is the most Democratic-leaning of the bunch; Gore won the district with 53 percent. Yet Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples is a strong Republican candidate whose moderate profile will be tough for Democrats to attack. In Colorado's 3rd District, a Democratic poll shows potato farmer and Democratic state Rep. John Salazar ahead of all of his potential GOP rivals. Republicans are counting on the conservative lean of that district to push their nominee over the finish line.

Even if Democrats should win all the competitive Republican open seats, they would still be short of a majority by nine seats and would need to start defeating Republican incumbents. Just two -- Rick Renzi in AZ-01 and Max Burns in GA-12 -- are now in toss-up races. The next tier of vulnerable Republicans, which includes freshman Reps. Jon Porter (NV-03) and Bob Beauprez (CO-07), is made up of seven incumbents.

Democrats contend, however, that they have credible candidates in enough other districts (the open seat in NE-01, for example), and against such long-term incumbents as Clay Shaw (FL-22), Phil Crane (IL-08), and Christopher Shays (CT-04), to be able to take advantage of a favorable political environment. If they are correct, then they would not need to win virtually all of the handful of the most-competitive contests. Still, since 1998, only 16 incumbents (five Democrats and 11 Republicans) have lost in November.

At this point, despite the Democrats' dreams and war chests, Republicans don't look to be in imminent danger of losing their House majority.

-- Associate Editor Amy Walter contributed to this report.

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