Sunday, October 27, 2002

Battle for Senate key to political dominance

GOP favored to stave off House Dems

By David Espo
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Republicans hold a clear advantage in the battle for control of the House in next week's elections, according to an Associated Press survey. The Senate hinges on close races from New Hampshire to Colorado, and the somber contest to replace the late Paul Wellstone.

At the midpoint of President Bush's term, the survey also points to Democratic gains in gubernatorial races, including Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan, industrial states long in Republican hands.

Despite the millions spent on polling and tens of millions on political advertising, "it's literally just about now that the 20 percent to 30 percent of the electorate ... are beginning to tune in for the first time," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster.

"The people don't move and focus until the last five days," agreed House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, hoping economic issues will trigger a late surge that delivers congressional control to his party.

Nationwide polls offer contradictory clues to an electorate that will cast ballots in a time of terrorism, economic slowdown and possible war with Iraq.

Growing numbers of Americans say the nation is moving down the wrong track, 51 percent in a recent survey for NPR.

Yet President Bush's approval ratings are in the 60 percent range. He also has embarked on a tour to influence votes on House seats.

House Democrats, eight years out of power, need to gain seven seats to be assured of control. The Senate breakdown is 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats, one independent and one vacancy - created by Mr. Wellstone's death in a small plane crash in Minnesota on Friday.

Republicans account for 27 governors, to 21 for Democrats and two independents.

With less than 10 days remaining in the campaign, as few as two dozen House seats out of 435 appear to be seriously competitive, according to public and private polls and assessments by strategists in the two parties. Democrats would need to win roughly two-thirds of them to gain control, a challenge complicated by a GOP advantage in campaign fund raising.

The list of competitive Senate races is shorter, but long enough to allow a swing of three or four seats in the battle for control.

Just weeks after winning a legal battle to replace Sen. Bob Torricelli with former Sen. Frank Lautenberg on the ballot in New Jersey, Democrats appear likely to hold that seat.

But Democratic Sens. Jean Carnahan in Missouri and Tim Johnson in South Dakota are in difficult campaigns. Republicans were running strongly at Mr. Wellstone, too, and his death raised a number of legal and political questions that officials have only begun to sort out.

The most vulnerable GOP-held Senate seats are in Arkansas, where public polls show first-termer Tim Hutchinson trailing; Colorado, where Sen. Wayne Allard is struggling; and New Hampshire, where Rep. John Sununu ousted GOP Sen. Bob Smith in a primary and now is in a close race with Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

Democrats still express hope for winning GOP open seats in North Carolina and Texas, where their candidates trail in public polls. Republicans nurse hopes in Georgia.

The GOP also is laboring to hold Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu below 50 percent in Louisiana. That would force a December runoff - possibly with Senate control riding on the outcome.

"The campaign remains very competitive, and will be decided on an election-by-election basis," said Ken Mehlman, political director in Mr. Bush's White House.

The president talks terrorism and the economy by turns in his campaign rounds.

. "Our economy isn't as good as it should be. It's bumping along," he said in Alabama recently before moving into an appeal for making last year's tax cuts permanent.

Overall, Republicans find themselves in a position that seemed highly improbable before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 altered the political landscape profoundly.

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