WASHINGTON — With President Bush's political strength eroding, Democrats face improved electoral prospects this fall in the House and Senate -- political terrain that not long ago seemed firmly in the GOP's grip.
Recent polls indicate that problems in Iraq and continuing lack of confidence in the economy are not only hurting Bush but undercutting voters' assessment of Republicans in Congress.
For Democrats, the challenge remains to translate that general discontent into specific victories. But the party's chances of winning control of the Senate have significantly improved in recent months, because of both the unexpected strength of Democratic candidates in several Bush strongholds and retirements by GOP incumbents. And the bid by the Democrats to take over the House, though still a long shot, would gain momentum next week if they won an open seat in South Dakota -- a surprisingly likely prospect in a heavily Republican state. That would be the Democrats' second victory in a special House election this year.
Republicans are clearly more nervous about the fight for Capitol Hill than they were a year ago. Back then, confident GOP leaders ambitiously aspired to expanding their narrow control of the House and Senate to establish a durable majority that would dominate national politics for years to come.
"The psychology has changed from one of [achieving] a permanent victory to maintaining the status quo," said Michael Franc, a Republican who is a vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
Many Republicans also are heaving a collective sigh of relief that Election Day is not right around the corner.
"To panic or feel elation six months before the election is an exercise in self-flagellation," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
"This is just the beginning of the summer," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). "But if we get to Labor Day and we have these numbers in the polls, we have a big problem."
The congressional races have been overshadowed by the presidential campaign, but their stakes are high for Bush because they will determine whether he faces a hostile Congress if he wins a second term. To help try to make it a friendly one, First Lady Laura Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been campaigning for congressional candidates.
In the House, where 218 seats constitute a majority, there currently are 228 Republicans, 205 Democrats, one independent who routinely votes with the Democrats and the one vacant seat. In the Senate, there are 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who usually sides with the Democrats.
Even with those slender margins, many Democrats a year ago doubted they could recapture either chamber.
In the House, new district lines drawn after the 2000 census made safe seats even safer and reduced the potentially competitive ones to a few dozen. Then, with an eye on this year's election, Texas legislators redrew House districts in the state to give Republicans the potential to gain as many as six seats there. In the Senate, the fight also began with a tilt against the Democrats because they had to defend 19 seats up for election, compared with the GOP's 16. The outlook became grimmer as five Democratic senators from the South -- a region Republicans have come to dominate -- decided not to seek reelection.
But the recent breaks have gone to the Democrats.
Last month, Republican Rep. Jack Quinn of New York announced he would retire, opening a House seat that Democrats have a good shot at winning. And a Democrat won a special election in Kentucky, taking over a GOP-held seat.
In South Dakota's June 1 special election, Democrat Stephanie Herseth has been leading Republican Larry Diedrich in the polls. The vote will fill the seat vacated when Republican Rep. William J. Janklow was convicted of second-degree manslaughter after running a stop sign and killing a motorcyclist.
More broadly, Democrats were encouraged by recent polls showing their party had gained an edge over the GOP when people were asked how they would vote in congressional elections.
A Time/CNN poll found that 53% said they would vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress in their district, compared with 40% who said they would back the Republican. A survey for the Associated Press reported that that 50% wanted Democrats to win control of Congress, compared with 41% favoring the Republicans.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, said such results probably reflected weakening support for Bush rather than a solid indication of voting intentions. But they also were a reminder that "no president gets turned out of office without taking some of his brethren in Congress with him," Kohut said.