Democrats' Midterm Lead Seen Narrowing


KING GEORGE, Va., Sept. 17, 2006 — -- At former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's annual pig roast this weekend, Democratic voters were starting to feel the heat.

Despite widespread predictions of a Democratic takeover of Congress, retiree Daynelle Perk-Lapisota expressed some trepidation.

"I really think it's going to be an anti-Republican vote," she said. "[But] it's what, six weeks away? And I'm just worried [about] what can happen in six weeks."

She might have reason to worry. With crunch time approaching, President Bush has gone on the offensive -- pounding his critics on national security in a series of high-profile speeches and press conferences. Next week, he'll use his bully pulpit again, with a speech at the United Nations.

"He can go out every single day from now until November driving a message in a way that no Democrat can do," says Amy Walter, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report.

The White House and Republicans are turning up the volume on what they see as their strongest issue -- terrorism.

A new ad by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., hits her opponent on the issue of NSA wiretapping: "A terrorist plot may be unfolding," the ad begins. "Should the government intercept that call or wait until the paperwork is filed? Nancy Johnson says act immediately."

According to the most recent ABC News poll, the Democrats' lead on a generic ballot test -- when voters are asked if they would rather vote for a Democrat or a Republican for Congress -- has shrunk from 52-39 in August to 50-42 this month. Republicans have regained their edge on terrorism, and terrorism has crept up in the public's list of concerns.

It all adds up to a campaign that's likely to be more competitive -- and contentious -- than any seen in years. Both sides agree the flood of money -- and negative ads -- will likely break all previous records for midterm elections.

Of course, for months, momentum has been on the Democrats' side. By all indications, liberal activists are especially energized this year. And Democrats are working hard to separate the war on terror from the war in Iraq -- which polls show is increasingly unpopular.

"The public doesn't feel the [Iraq] war is going well," says Andrew Kohut, an independent pollster at the Pew Research Center. "They're concerned about the loss of lives in what seems to be a cause that is not succeeding."

One especially tough ad -- sponsored by an outside group -- accuses Sen. George Allen, R-Va., of voting against supplying the troops with up-to-date body armor.

Like many vulnerable Republicans, Allen admits the Iraq war has not been easy, but he said retreat would be a mistake.

"This is a central battlefront in the war on terror, and it's not just the president or the vice president or me saying that -- that's what Al Qaeda says," he said Sunday in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But Allen's Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, shaking hands with voters at the pig roast, is all too aware his own party's difficulties on the national security front.

"What's happened is the Republicans have positioned these issues so that the other side is on the defensive," he said.

He's under no illusions as to what lies ahead.

"We're in good shape," he said, "and that's also going to bring the storm in terms of negative ads and that sort of thing."

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