updated 10/10/2007 9:50:56 AM ET 2007-10-10T13:50:56

Just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, a veteran Republican strategist remarked to me, "I am really worried about whether we can hold our majorities next year."

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He was the first person to suggest such a thing to me during the last election cycle.

"We're supposed to be the party of competence," this Republican professional explained. "When we look incompetent, it's a real problem."

If one was to say what the core value is for each party, it might be compassion for Democrats and competence for Republicans. Democrats are expected to really care about people, and Republicans are supposed to be able to manage things well. When a party strays from its core value, it is in trouble. Republicans learned this from Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, federal budget deficits and runaway spending.

Beyond November's election results, the early signs for 2008 aren't promising for Republicans.

Recent independent polling has shown a generic preference for Democrats in presidential and congressional races, and a weakening of Republicans' traditional dominance on national security issues.

It is not that Democrats look good, just that Republicans look bad.

What is strange is that none of the leading Republican presidential candidates -- including management whiz and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- seem to be playing the competence card, even though that is what so many Republican voters seem to yearn for.

One reason might be that using that card is an implied criticism of President Bush, something still frowned upon in certain quarters. Yet, that's what candidates should be pushing.

Interestingly, the dynamics in the 2008 presidential, Senate and House contests are all quite different.

In the House, the GOP's problem today is more of an atmospheric problem than a seat problem: 61 Democrats sit in districts that President Bush carried in 2004 and only eight Republicans sit in districts that were won by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Of course, if many more GOP members in competitive districts retire, individual seats could become a more serious problem. But 11 open GOP seats, half of them in reasonably secure districts, shouldn't be cause for panic in the party.

On the Senate side, the horrible environment is compounded by a seat problem.

When your party has 22 Senate seats up for grabs and the other side has 12; when you have -- at this point -- five open seats and the other party none; when several of your incumbents face formidable challengers in states won by the other party in the previous presidential election and the other party has just one; well, you've got a problem.

While a nine-seat Senate Democratic gain, enough for a filibuster-proof majority, would require another perfect storm along the lines of 2006, it is reasonable to predict a gain of four to six seats for Democrats in the Senate, on top of the six-seat gain in November.

The two biggest immediate variables are whether former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., runs for the open seat in Nebraska, and whether Gov. Bill Richardson doubles back into the newly open Senate race in New Mexico. If Richardson runs, he would be the odds-on favorite to win the seat, a pickup for Democrats. If he doesn't run, the race would be a fair fight, with Democrats possibly favored.

While the GOP's chances of recapturing their lost majority in the Senate are close to zero and not a lot better in the House, they still might have a 40-percent chance of holding onto the presidency, which is pretty remarkable given how terrible the political climate for the party is.

There is probably an 80-percent chance that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., will win the Democratic presidential nomination, maybe 10 percent that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., wins it and 10 percent that lightning strikes and someone else gets it.

While Clinton and Obama today lead each of the GOP candidates in trial heats, neither the highly polarizing Clinton nor the experience-challenged Obama seems likely to blow the race open.

Each probably has a relatively low ceiling or, in stock market parlance, a narrow trading range. Each runs ahead of his or her prospective rivals, but is not likely to pull far away, thus leaving the GOP nominee, almost regardless of who it is, within striking distance.

The political environment ensures that the contest would be uphill for the Republican nominee, but whomever Democrats pick will keep the race in play.

Early this year, Clinton trailed the best-known Republican candidates, Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in most polls.

More recent polls, though, show that she has bounced back against both. The lesser-known Republican candidates do not run as well, simply because of their low name recognition and voter familiarity.

Three fights -- for president and for control of the House and Senate -- and three very different scenarios, but all a real challenge for the GOP.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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