updated 7/8/2008 4:50:20 PM ET 2008-07-08T20:50:20

One of the few absolute truisms of politics is that you can't win a seat you already won. So the most compelling argument for why Democrats aren't likely to score a 30-seat gain in the House this fall is that they already have.

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With a 30-seat gain in 2006 and three special election victories in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi, the lowest-hanging fruit has already been picked, and there are always freshmen elected in tough districts in such elections who are political walking wounded.

That, part and parcel, is the argument against another huge gain for Democrats. On national generic congressional ballot tests, Democrats are consistently running leads in line with polls heading into their 2006 sweeps.

President Bush's approval ratings are at toxic levels. Favorability ratings for the Republican Party badly trail Democrats and while Congress' job approval ratings are low, when polls bore down to party, voter antipathy toward Republicans in Congress is far worse than Democrats.

Combine those "macro" political factors with more micro elements -- that Republicans are being badly outspent at the congressional campaign committee levels and that Republicans have 28 open seats compared to just seven for Democrats, it just looks grisly for the GOP.

With a slew of ratings updates last week, the Cook Political Report shows four seats currently in GOP hands in the "Lean Democratic" column and 18 more Republican seats in the "Toss Up" category, bringing the GOP total to 22 seats in extreme danger.

Eleven more Republican seats are rated as "Lean Republican," meaning competitive but with the GOP still having an edge, bringing the number of Republican seats that are competitive or worse to 33.

Yet another 35 Republican seats are rated as "Likely Republican," not competitive but still worth watching.

In contrast, no Democratic seats are "Lean Republican," just seven Democratic seats are in the "Toss Up" column, and 12 more "Lean Democratic," totaling 19 competitive races, with 14 more in "Likely Democrat" worth watching.

At this point House Editor David Wasserman is suggesting Democratic gains of between 10 and 20 seats, pretty impressive on top of 30 seats in November 2006 and three since then.

Having spent 10 days in the last month in Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana, it is noteworthy that this is one of the few times since former President Carter's election in 1976 when it does not appear to be a liability to be a Democrat in much of the South.

Two, four or six years from now, the Democratic Party might rank with famine, petulance and disease in public popularity, but today, it just isn't a problem being a Democrat just about anywhere short of Texas' 22nd District, where Rep. Nick Lampson is trying to tame former GOP Rep. Tom DeLay's bronco of a district.

Despite the favorable climate for Democrats, the presidential race remains anything but a slam dunk.

Most national surveys these days indicate small leads for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., over Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But it is becoming clear that this presidential election is not effectively a choice between two candidates, but rather a decision about whether enough voters are comfortable enough with Obama to elect him president.

If there are, he wins and the strong demand for change and preference for Democrats will prevail. But, if sufficient numbers of voters do not reach that comfort level, McCain will win by default.

Some of the keenest insights have come this year from a series of focus groups conducted by Democratic pollster emeritus Peter Hart for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Following up on a focus group he conducted among independent voters in May in Charlottesville, Va., the latest, in York, Pa., with 12 non-Obama voters -- taped and broadcast last week on C-SPAN -- helps get down to the nub of this election.

Hart was particularly looking to discover whether Democrats who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in the primary or those who haven't yet come to support Obama were open to his candidacy.

Hart reported that five of the seven former Clinton supporters in the room have swung to Obama, stating he found Clinton voters "carried little lingering negative effects from the primary."

But Hart found a raging debate among the 12 participants over whether Obama is "ready to lead the country and placing his narrative squarely in the American circle." Among those who support him, they now have developed some sense of who he is and "translated it into a set of values."

But, Hart continued, "the challenge emerges from the rest of the group. It is not just that they oppose Obama, but rather the vehemence of the opposition; what concerns them is less about issue stances and more about race and character. The most vitriolic comments are not directed at his policies, but at him personally, criticizing him for having a 'rock-star attitude,' being a 'great fabricator,' being 'inexperienced,' being someone who 'comes from a Muslim family,' and being someone who will not 'pledge to the flag with your hand over your heart.'"

Conversely, Hart found that McCain was more of a "remainder man" than the initial choice of many voters. For those uncomfortable with Obama, McCain becomes "the acceptable transitional alternative."

Hart's assessment rings true to what I have found on my travels around the country this year. This is "up or down" on Obama.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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