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GOP takes heart in poll, lower gas prices

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman talks to members of the media  on Wednesday. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman talks to members of the media on Wednesday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – With the fall election campaign taking shape, many Republicans believe for the first time in months that they’ve turned a corner and could limit feared midterm losses enough to retain control of Congress.

The reasons for their guarded optimism include a new poll showing that voters again give an edge to the Republicans on national security, another showing concerns about the seeming lack of a clear Democratic alternative agenda, an impressive get-out-the-vote effort in a Rhode Island Republican primary, and relief over dropping gasoline prices.

To be sure, all Republicans interviewed stressed that they still face a sour country and tough election – the Iraq war being the main reason – and they still fear losing seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Democrats dismiss the notion of a Republican rebound.

“These guys must be living in a circular room if they think they’ve turned a corner,” said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “At the end of the day, the situation in Iraq remains the same, the economy remains the same, and the things coming out of Congress remain the same. To say they’re in better shape going into the heart of the general election campaign doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Nevertheless, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman on Friday all but echoed one internal White House prediction that his party will lose only two to three Senate seats and eight to 12 House seats. That would still leave Republicans in control of Congress. Democrats need to gain 15 House seats and six Senate seats to capture both chambers.

Mehlman and other Republican operatives argued that they “won” the first full week after Labor Day, the date when more voters historically start tuning in to politics and candidates and parties ramp up their campaigns, particularly with advertising.

“We’re in a pretty good trend right now, although we’re still in a tough environment,” Mehlman said at a breakfast with reporters.

“There’s clearly a turnaround happening,” added a Republican Senate aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity on his boss’s orders. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. But there’s a chance now to stave off the kind of disaster that was being predicted.”

Several credit President Bush’s concerted effort in recent speeches to connect the unpopular Iraq war to the more broadly supported war against terrorism and to paint the Democrats as weak on defense.

One poll last week suggested that the White House campaign succeeded in at least one area. The ABC-Washington Post survey showed that voters trust Republicans over Democrats to handle terrorism by a margin of 48 percent to 41 percent.

Another poll, conducted for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, showed that 42 percent of voters are more concerned that Democrats lack “specific programs,” while 37 percent are more concerned that Republicans have offered “no changes” to the status quo. That suggests that the Republican hope to turn the election from a referendum on their rule to a choice between them and the Democrats may be working.

Republicans also enter the fall with a decided cash advantage to buy more advertising and conduct get-out-the-vote operations. Last week, the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, reported that collectively, all Republican political committees had a cash-on-hand edge over their Democratic counterparts of $121 million to $91 million.

Republicans also were buoyed by the party’s get-out-the-vote work in Rhode Island on Tuesday, where it helped produce a record turnout and a primary victory for incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee. That turnout effort echoed a successful drive in a special election in California over the summer, signs that the party’s much-lauded ability to mobilize its voters is still effective even in a tough year.

And gasoline prices are dropping, easing one of the many drags on the party in power. The ranks of voters who rate gasoline prices as the top issue dropped from 15 percent last month to 5 percent, according to the ABC poll.

“Having gas prices moderate is an important component of having people recognize that the economy is in a lot better shape than they think it is,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

But he cautioned that it’s not enough to turn around Republican fortunes.

“We have had a good week. But that good week needs to be sustained in order for it to have a fundamentally different effect on the election. … It’s hard to say things are really looking up until we see significant improvement on Iraq, or more people see the economy as positive.”