Archive for Friday, August 4, 2006

GOP faces election potholes

August 4, 2006


As President Bush heads for Crawford, Texas, and Congress begins a monthlong recess, time is running out for the Republicans to prevent a significant electoral setback this fall.

Polls show negative attitudes are hardening on key factors that will shape the November landscape: public approval of Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress, the Iraq war and the country's direction. Middle East hostilities show no sign of easing.

Despite temporary fluctuations, underlying attitudes have shown no change for months. It's increasingly hard to see much improvement between now and Nov. 7, barring the unexpected.

Democrats increasingly believe they will regain the House for the first time in 12 years - and some Republicans agree. But top GOP strategists see a continued Republican edge due to the way individual districts are drawn, anticipated voter turnout and financial resources.

Yet even in these areas, Democrats are more competitive than in recent elections.

The GOP probably will retain the Senate, although with less than the current 55-45 majority. But a change in just one house will dramatically transform political dynamics, subjecting the administration to far greater congressional scrutiny.

What are the biggest potholes for the Republicans?

Iraq: The new government's failure to curb violence has forced Bush to shift more troops to Baghdad, requiring extension of some tours of duty. The United States is unlikely to reduce its troops in Iraq during the coming months.

Recent polls show little evidence that the GOP has made headway by contrasting Bush's vow to stay in Iraq until the job is finished with what it calls a "cut-and-run" stance among Democrats. Instead, a majority disapproves of the president's Iraq policy and favors a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

Mideast: Several polls indicated a majority approved of Bush's refusal to seek an early cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. But the public also saw the violence as exacerbating problems such as high domestic oil prices, the safety of U.S. troops and the chance of more terrorist attacks.

Even before the conflict intensified last weekend, it had reopened rifts between Bush and U.S. allies who favor greater efforts to reach a cease-fire. And it seems certain to complicate the effort to curb Iran's development of nuclear weapons.

Congress: Both houses may well set records for the fewest number of days in session, bolstering the Democratic argument of a "do-nothing" Congress.

While Republicans plan to renew efforts to strengthen border security, lawmakers seem unlikely to pass meaningful immigration measures before the election. A maneuver to cut the estate tax by linking it to an increase in the minimum wage may backfire. And GOP leaders concede they won't pass most bills to fund the government before they leave to campaign at the end of September, requiring a post-election session.

Most polls show congressional approval in the 20s, worse than Bush's rating. All year, a plurality of those surveyed seems to favor election of a Democratic Congress. Some polls also show voters favor electing a new face over their current representative, another troubling sign for the Republicans given that many more GOP-held seats are in play than Democratic ones.

Both the House and Senate Democratic campaign committees have more cash on hand than their GOP counterparts, but that's offset by the far bigger war chest of the Republican National Committee over its Democratic rival.

Some analysts caution that support from independents is a key factor in current Democratic leads; fewer independents usually vote in off-year elections than in presidential races. Neutral analysts note that the GOP has shown in recent elections a remarkable ability to turn out its vote, so expect a similar effort this year.

The question is whether Republicans can be equally successful in a year in which the political landscape is far less friendly than it was in both 2002 and 2004.

- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.


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