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updated 9/26/2006 3:44:08 PM ET 2006-09-26T19:44:08
ANALYSIS

Are we now at a transition point in this midterm election fight, or will the dynamics of the last three to six weeks continue?

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If Republicans can replicate the environment of the past six weeks, their chances of holding onto their House majority are pretty good, and they will almost certainly retain their Senate majority.

But if the spotlight shifts away from terrorism and declining gasoline prices and back onto the war in Iraq, where it was before, the House very likely goes back to the Democrats and the Senate gets much dicier.

Regression analyses by University of Wisconsin political science professor Charles Franklin of all major national public opinion surveys shows that on about Aug. 15, President Bush's job-approval rating began a gradual uptick. His rating averaged about 3 points higher than it had been in July and the first half of the month -- from 38 percent to 41 percent.

After a lag of a couple of weeks, there was a comparable 4-point tightening of the generic congressional ballot test from a 13-point Democratic lead to about 9 points today. We have not seen a corresponding shift in favor of Republicans in individual races -- at least not yet -- though that would likely lag behind the generic.

Some GOP candidates have improved their fortunes over the last month, while others have seen their situations deteriorate further, so there is no discernable pattern.

Why the movement? What does it mean and will it continue? Crude oil prices hit their peak about Aug. 7, and soon began an impressive decline. Gasoline prices began a comparable drop from their painfully high levels soon thereafter.

On Aug. 10, the high-profile arrests of terrorist suspects in London got an enormous amount of attention, which fed into the build-up for the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. So the spotlight, which had been to a large extent on the bad news coming out of Iraq, suddenly shifted to something else; something that unquestionably benefited Bush and his party. It was a boost they badly needed.

Any day that the public and media are focused on the war in Iraq is a really bad day for the White House and the GOP. With the exception of a day featuring the indictment or conviction of a Republican member of Congress or governor, a day with the focus on anything other than Iraq is a good day.

Even the intraparty GOP fight over suspected terrorist detainees chewed up news space that otherwise might have gone to far more unfavorable Iraq stories. For nearly seven weeks now, the spotlight has not been on Iraq and on more palatable subjects for Republicans -- hence the upward movement toward President Bush and his party.

Not to a good place, of course, as a Republican pollster put it a couple of weeks ago, but "less worse" than before.

During that time, some really bad news has come out on Iraq: the report by the Marine intelligence chief for Iraq declaring the Anbar province lost, enormous civilian death tolls and continued U.S. casualties. But when 38 Iraqi civilians, mostly women and children, are killed in a single bomb blast in Baghdad, and it is relegated to page A-20 of the Washington Post, clearly there is a lot going on to crowd out at least some of the bad news from Iraq.

The question is whether the spotlight will remain where it has been, which benefits Republicans enormously, or will it swing back on Iraq? And does the disclosure of a National Intelligence Estimate saying that the war in Iraq has actually exacerbated the terrorist threat mark the beginning of a shift in media and public focus that puts the GOP back into the dog house where they were in midsummer, when loss of the House looked more and more likely?

Keep in mind that a net gain of 15 seats puts Democrats in control of the House. If the potential outcomes of House races were plotted on a standard bell curve, about six weeks ago the top of the curve -- the single most-likely outcome, was a net gain for Democrats of about 17 to 19 seats. Today, I estimate it would be a Democratic pickup of 14 to 16 seats, or maybe 15 to 17.

In the Senate, my hunch is a net gain for Democrats of three to five seats. While three one-time long shot opportunities for Democrats -- challenges to Sens. George Allen in Virginia and Jon Kyl in Arizona and the open seat in Tennessee being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist -- aren't such long shots anymore, appointed Democratic incumbent Robert Menendez's hold on his New Jersey seat is looking increasingly precarious.

For Democrats, it's pretty hard to have to win seven GOP seats to net the six needed for a majority turnover, which they would have to do if Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. wins in New Jersey .

The situation in the Virginia Senate race is too fluid and volatile to even speculate about now. Putting that one aside, the three most important Senate races in determining which party will hold a majority are Missouri , New Jersey and Tennessee. All three are very close, and in no way is the result a foregone conclusion.

There are several highly vulnerable GOP seats that we may look back on after the election and think that their outcomes were probably determined before Labor Day -- but not those three.

-- Charlie Cook is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor, weekly columnist for National Journal magazine and the founder and publisher of the Cook Political Report. This column also runs in CongressDailyAM when Congress is in session. His e-mail address is ccook@nationaljournal.com.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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