By Political Director
updated 9/7/2006 3:16:17 PM ET 2006-09-07T19:16:17
ON THE TRAIL

With just two months until Election Day, it's time to examine when we will know how things are shaping up for Nov. 7 and where to look for clues.

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First, President Bush's job-approval rating is hovering at 40 percent, a figure that Republican strategists believe is just barely passable. In this case, "passable" is defined as keeping the House and Senate. But the real danger for the party in power is that Bush's approval numbers can still go lower.

We're already starting to see campaigns engage each other with paid media -- although the GOP dominated the pre-Labor Day airwaves. For many Democratic candidates, these next few weeks will be the first time they've communicated with voters for a sustained period of time. And taking a cue from the polls, the message being sent by House and Senate Democratic campaigns is: "I'm not for Bush, but my opponent is."

If the electorate is as angry as the polls and media indicate, and if that anger is going to be cast upon Bush, then his job-approval rating will start falling again, particularly among likely voters. We should see evidence of that by the end of the month. And the closer Bush's job-approval rating gets to 35 percent, the higher the likelihood that both the House and the Senate will go to the Democrats.

However, if Bush's job-approval rating doesn't fall any further after the initial barrage of September anti-Bush paid media, then the GOP should start believing it can win again. So the first marker to check is Bush's job-approval rating on Oct. 1.

Iraq vs. terrorism?
The second marker is harder to track because major polls address it differently, but the distinction in the public's mind between the war on terror and the war in Iraq ought to be followed closely. Simply put, if voters are going into the voting booths worried about Iraq, they are probably voting Democrat. If voters are going in worried about terrorism, they are probably voting Republican.

I'm not convinced many pollsters are correctly measuring the difference (or lack thereof) in the electorate's mind regarding Iraq and terrorism. That said, every national poll tries to gauge this debate in some form. But watch for results among the polls that ask whether Iraq is part of the war on terror. The more respondents answering "no," the better for the Democrats; the more answering "yes," the better for the GOP.

Democrats should be in a better position to make their case. They just have to convince voters that Iraq isn't going well, and that it's not part of the war on terror. Republicans, on the other hand, have the more difficult task of conceding the former but debating the latter. The Democrats' task is easier because candidates from both parties are now agreeing that Iraq isn't going well. (For example, there is an increasing number of Republicans who are calling for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation.) And once voters begin to believe the war is going badly, they'll be more open to the argument that it isn't part of fighting terrorism.

The increasing Republican dissent on Rumsfeld and Iraq appears to be step No. 1 in what it takes for a party to lose its grip on power. Whenever a party that's reeling begins moving into "everyone for him/herself" mode, bona fide swing voters -- small group that they may be -- tend to lose confidence in the disunified band. In a few individual cases, Republicans who break from the administration on Iraq might save their own hides, but they'll be inflicting greater damage to their party nationally. Breaks with the administration do take a toll, with the Democrats' rift with PresidentBill Clintonin '94 as Exhibit A.

7 states
As for the battlegrounds that will likely determine the majority, there are three critical states in the battle for the Senate and four in the battle for the House.

Presumably, in a "change" environment, it's hard to imagine the "out" party losing Senate seats. Barring a collapse by Democrats Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, Sen. Debbie Stabenow in Michiganor Sen. Maria Cantwell in Washington, the battle should come down to three states: Missouri, Ohioand Tennessee. If Republicans hold two of the three, Democrats cannot win control -- period. But if Democrats grab all three, they will win control. Even if they pick up two of the three, they might win control.

The reason I single out these over the other Democratic targets is that these three are highly susceptible to the national mood, while the other Democratic targets (which include Montana, Pennsylvania,Rhode Islandand possibly even Virginia) are incumbent-driven. In other words, the incumbent's missteps have created the vulnerability. The current national environment doesn't help those lawmakers, of course, but without their stumbles in those four races, three of their seats would definitely not be in play.

Of the MOT states (as in "Missouri-Ohio-Tennessee"), their commonalities are going to make following them for the next eight weeks fascinating. All three voted for Bush in '04 and in '00, but all three also voted for Clinton in '92 and '96. The trio has been trending GOP to varying degrees over the last few years, with Tennessee moving the most sharply, followed by Missouri and then Ohio. In the long run, the future of all three states belongs to Republicans, but that doesn't mean Democrats can't win in the short term. To win any of these races, Democrats have to make the national case, not a local case. They must argue to fire the GOP, not just fire the incumbent. (The latter is happening in Pennsylvania and Montana.)

Republicans are aware that the MOT states are their firewall. In fact, watch the Republicans' use of 527s very closely. There will be a heavier emphasis by the Senate-based 527s to channel their resources to those three states.

As for the House, if the Democrats can pick up 10 or more seats in the following four states -- Connecticut(three targets), Indiana(three targets),Ohio (three targets) andPennsylvania (four targets) -- they'll grab control. If Republicans hold their combined losses in these four states to single digits, then they just might hold on to congressional power.

Conventional wisdom currently favors the Democrats to gain House control. In some D.C. circles, it's already being viewed as a fait accompli. But don't forget just how difficult a task that will be for the Democrats in those four states. While the demographics and environment favor the minority heavily in many of these districts (particularly in blue states Connecticut and Pennsylvania), 12 of the 13 targeted districts have Republican incumbents. There's just one open seat in this baker's dozen. Much of the GOP House gain in '94 came from capturing open seats, not from knocking off incumbents. It's possible and even probable that Democrats will win many of these 13, but to nab 10 or more of them would be highly indicative of a major Democratic wave.

Chuck Todd is editor in chief of The Hotline .

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