Reporting from Washington —
Two months before election day, the U.S. economy is teetering. President Obama's approval ratings are anemic. Republican voters are pumped. The smart money is betting against Democratic incumbents.
With the political and economic landscape tilted so steeply against the Democrats, the biggest question is: How in the world could Republicans not win control of Congress?
But despite all its assets, the GOP still faces hurdles. It suffers a disadvantage in fundraising, a national organization in shambles, an inconsistent message, and bruises from a tumultuous primary season — all factors that could make the difference between winning and winning big.
"This isn't going to be as easy as it looks, by any means," said Terry Holt, a top aide to George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign who has been informally advising House Republican leaders. "It's going to require an awful lot of really focused organizational and grass-roots efforts to truly take advantage of the opportunity we have been given."
Nonpartisan analysts, one by one, have become increasingly bold in predicting a Republican takeover of the House. A Senate majority will be harder for the GOP to achieve, but the prospect is no longer unthinkable, as it was just a few months ago.
Still, one big thing stands between Republicans and taking charge of Congress: a campaign. Most voters are just beginning to focus on the candidates and their messages.
"If we get overconfident and don't stick to our message, and we don't work for that vote, we will lose that vote," says Glenn McCall, a member of the Republican National Committee from South Carolina.
To address the shortcomings, party leaders and outside allies are working to close a gap between their fundraising and the bulging coffers of the Democratic Party. They also are preparing a new campaign manifesto that will be unveiled this month, to answer charges that they offer no credible alternative except to recycle the unpopular policies of the Bush administration.
And the GOP will be shifting from a primary season of intraparty strife between establishment candidates and insurgents. The final months of the campaign will test just how receptive swing voters will be to the populists who so excited the conservative base.
Looking for chinks in the GOP armor, Democrats hope to stave off disaster with their own financial clout, a disciplined critique of Republican policies and their attacks on GOP candidates.
"We have been preparing from Day 1 for what we knew would be a very tough campaign season," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
'Gale-force winds' favor GOP
To take control of the House, Republicans need to pick up 39 seats. To win the Senate, the GOP would need to gain 10 seats.
Doing so would represent a breathtaking turnaround for a party that less than two years ago had been flattened by two crushing electoral landslides that left it depleted, leaderless and demoralized.
"The gale-force winds that blew Democrats to power have shifted entirely and are now behind Republicans, who appear to be sailing to a remarkable victory," said Lawrence Jacobs, an expert on polling and elections at the University of Minnesota. He sees the situation for Democrats as even more dire than in 1994, when Republicans swept to power.
A recent Gallup poll gives Republicans nationwide a 10-point edge in popularity, the largest in the recent history of midterm elections. That means more and more congressional seats are in play.
The party's biggest obstacle to taking advantage of that expanded playing field is money. Republican challengers, if they are unknown to voters, are especially vulnerable to advertising purchased by deep-pocketed Democratic incumbents.
For instance, in the GOP effort to unseat Democratic Rep. Patrick J. Murphy in the suburbs of Philadelphia, polls show the GOP challenger leading Murphy, 48% to 41%. But the area is an expensive media market, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has not included it in its first wave of advertising.
That means attack ads may not be countered in time. "Money can buy you confusion; it can buy a lot of fear," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).
Half a dozen Democratic incumbents are already airing ads portraying their Republican opponents as enemies of Social Security. Among them is Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.), who is trailing his opponent in polls but can dip into a 4-to-1 funding advantage to launch early attacks.