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Democrats and the November vote
Yahoo News/AP
May 29, 2006

WASHINGTON - Republicans are three steps from a November shellacking — each a grim possibility if habitually divided Democrats get their acts together.

First step: Voters must focus on the national landscape on Nov. 7 rather than local issues and personalities that usually dominate midterm elections.

That would sting Republicans, who trail badly in national polls.

Second step: Voters must be so angry at Washington and politics in general that an anti-incumbent, throw-the-bums-out mentality sweeps the nation.

That would wound Republicans, the majority party.

Third step: Americans must view the elections as a referendum on President Bush and the GOP-led Congress, siding with Democrats in a symbolic vote against the Iraq war, rising gas prices, economic insecurity and the nagging sense that the nation is on the wrong track.

That would destroy Republicans, sweeping them from power in one or both chambers and making Bush a lame duck.

Less than six months out, most Democratic and Republican strategists say the first two elements are in place for now — a national, anti-incumbent mind-set — and all signs point to the third.

Still, many Democrats worry that their party has not closed the deal.

"The fear I have as a Democrat is that if we are making this solely a referendum on the Republicans, we are not giving people a reason to turn out," said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane of California.

"Having said that, I think all these other elements are so bad for the Republicans that 'Had enough?' should be enough."

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and the party's congressional leaders have clashed over money and the DNC's push for a unified message that draws a stark contrast with the GOP.

Inside the DNC, some officials point to internal polls that show voters holding both the Democratic and Republican parties in equally low esteem.

The fact that most voters, when forced to choose, tell pollsters they want Democrats rather than Republicans to control Congress is not a sign of strength, these officials say. Rather, it's evidence that voters are simply giving Democrats a chance to win them over — a chance that can be blown unless Democrats stand for something other than attacking Bush, these officials said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, agreed that Democrats have not sealed the deal.

"I think if the election were held today, there is a 50-50 chance of taking the House and the Senate and a very high percentage of gaining a significant number of seats," Schumer said.

"But things change."

Democrats outside Congress will be disappointed with anything less than major triumphs.

"Shame on us if we don't have a good election cycle," said Jill Alper, a Democratic strategist from Michigan.

Back to those three steps.

NATIONAL ELECTION: Among the two dozen Republican and Democratic strategists interviewed in the last two weeks, there was unanimity that the fall campaigns will be national in scope. Voters will give local issues less attention than normal, a bad sign for the GOP.

"If we keep it local we win; if they nationalize issues, they win," said Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, head of the GOP Senate committee, seemed resigned to a national campaign. "Obviously, we're going to do everything we can here at the Senate committee to minimize any aspect of that," she said.

THROW THE BUMS OUT: More than 70 percent of Americans tell pollsters that the nation is on the wrong track. Larger percentages think corruption is a major problem in Washington. Incumbents have been roughed up already this year in Pennsylvania and Indiana, and in both cases Republicans suffered the worst.

If this shapes up to be an anti-incumbent midterm, "we'll lose some members" in Congress, said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, "but they have more incumbents."

ANTI-REPUBLICAN TIDE: Whether 2006 turns out to be an anti-incumbent or anti-GOP election "is the 15-seat question," said Democratic strategist Dane Strother, referring to the number of seats the Democrats need to win to seize control of the House.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says GOP majorities are "clearly in jeopardy" because the political landscape is both anti-incumbent and anti-Republican.

"They know that Republicans are in charge," the grim-faced presidential hopeful said of voters. "But I just want to emphasize that we have six months, and we can turn this around."

And Democrats could fumble the opportunity.

EDITOR'S NOTE — Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press since 1992.

Associated Press writer Jon Sarche in Colorado Springs, Colo., contributed to this report.

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