Will the Republican uptick hold?

/ Source: National Journal

WASHINGTON — Do President Bush and the GOP have their election swagger back? According to a recent Gallup poll and a handful of GOP surveys in some key districts, that appears to be the case.

But is this just a temporary bump following the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, or a longstanding surge?

There are a few things to consider in conjunction with the flurry of surveys showing a GOP uptick. All of these surveys were conducted after the White House's Sept. 11 public relations blitz that culminated with Bush's primetime speech, again arguing that Iraq is a central battle in the war on terror.

Bush dominated the media landscape early last week, consenting to interviews with every major media outlet in the country -- both television and print. And he framed the Iraq debate on his terms, leading to an improved public standing, thanks in part to the Democrats' silence at the time.

But if he hadn't gotten a bump this week following that five-day media bonanza, then it would have been Katy bar the door for the GOP.

Predictable as they may be, these poll numbers are extremely significant. Democrats should now understand that if they cede Iraq and terrorism to Bush -- or allow Bush to define the debate -- then their dreams of a congressional majority will go up in smoke.

As I noted recently, terrorism is the Republican Party's best base issue, because its base responds more strongly to terrorism than any other issue these days. And right now the GOP is getting more support from Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

Since Hurricane Katrina struck just over a year ago, Bush's job-approval rating has fluctuated between the mid-30s and mid-40s. The most volatile blocs of respondents have been moderate Republicans and GOP-leaning independents. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have not changed their opinion of Bush -- their loathing has been stable.

When Bush gets a positive job rating from approximately 90 percent of self-described Republicans, his overall rating rests comfortably in the 40s. But when approval from the GOP's loyalists dips into the 80s, his overall numbers start lurching into the 30s.

Media saturation helped GOP
What the Bush administration's media saturation last week did was remind Republicans what they like about Bush (or what they liked about him back in '04). All of this is good news for the Republicans because at least it shows them their recipe for survival. If Republicans will rally around Bush over terrorism and ease their frustrations with the GOP on spending, immigration and stem-cell research, then they can win a race-by-race battle for the House and Senate.

A complacent and frustrated GOP base -- not an enthused and angry Democratic base -- puts the prospect of a wave into play.

Republican strategists fret that their base won't be fired up about winning this year, and if their midterm base turnout is down just a few percentage points from their '02 levels, then Democrats could win a slew of close races. And those results would make the national landscape look like a Democratic tsunami.

Still, there's something about this bump that feels temporary. First, Democrats' hard-core attacks on Bush and the GOP have only been airing for about a week. The national surveys gauging Bush's job-approval rating won't reflect the cumulative effect of those ads for another couple of weeks.

And then there's history. It's striking how many great Septembers the eventual losing party has had over the years. In September of '96, Democrats appeared on their way to winning back the House. And in September of '98, Republicans appeared to be the party with momentum thanks to the Democrats' inability to talk about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

In September of '02 and '04, Democrats appeared to be doing better than expected given the climate at the time. In fact, a number of positive pro-Democratic polls covering Southern Senate races were released in September in both of those cycles.

But then came October -- the month when voters' views begin to solidify. In each case, the party that started riding high in September began to unravel in October.

What about domestic issues?
Between now and Election Day, Bush will not get the same opportunity to dominate the Iraq debate although there is talk among some Democrats who seem to have forgotten about trying to stick to domestic issues in the '02 and '04 elections.

If that's the ultimate response by some Democrats, then the White House will be ecstatic. But if the Democrats focus on Iraq and try to drive a wedge between terrorism and Iraq, then the minority party should benefit considering the media's attention to Iraq. The first two "Meet The Press" debates give the impression that the 2006 election is mostly about Iraq -- and a bunch of other stuff.

Still, Republicans should be relieved that the president still has enough momentum left to win over these disenchanted Republicans. But Republicans need a little help to completely change the dynamics of this environment.

Even as Bush has improved his standing, the same improvement is not happening for Republicans down the ballot. In fact, in the battle for the Senate, every race but New Jersey has improved in the Democrats' direction. Republicans are seeing their opportunities for Senate pickups wither all over the country, while the number of seats they have to defend has grown.

In the House it's the same story. Democrats seem to be finding more long-shot races that are looking competitive, while the few Republican targets are starting to fade.

Once again, keep an eye on that Bush job-approval rating in about three weeks. That's when we'll have a better idea of whether the Republicans have truly got their groove back or not.

-- Chuck Todd is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor and editor in chief of The Hotline. His e-mail address is ctodd@nationaljournal.com.