Republicans seized on signs of movement in their direction yesterday as they unleashed a massive election-eve voter mobilization operation in an effort to stave off potentially substantial losses in the House and preserve at least a slender majority in the Senate.
Democrats answered the Republicans' get-out-the-vote machinery with intensified efforts to contact infrequent and still-undecided voters in a handful of tight Senate races as well as in a dozen GOP-held House districts where races were too close to call.
A Pew Research Center poll showed a significant narrowing in the partisan advantage in House races that the Democrats have enjoyed for much of the year, findings that echoed those of a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Saturday showing the Democrats with a six-point edge.
The Pew poll showed that the Democratic advantage had dropped to 47 percent to Republicans' 43 percent among likely voters, down from 50 percent to 39 percent two weeks ago. The poll found a drop in Democratic support among independents, but Pew Director Andrew Kohut said the most significant change over the past two weeks is that Republicans now outnumber Democrats among likely voters.
Other weekend polls by Time and Newsweek magazines continued to show Republicans at a steep disadvantage, with Democrats enjoying double-digit margins in party preferences for the House.
GOP strategists said they believe their prospects continue to improve as voters digest the guilty verdict against former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, positive economic statistics and the prospect of Democrats taking control of one or both chambers of the legislative branch. "I have always believed that Republican voters in many cases come home later, particularly this year," said Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.
President Bush campaigned yesterday in two conservative Plains states, Nebraska and Kansas, where there are no competitive statewide races but where Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun (R) is in trouble and where Nebraska state Sen. Adrian Smith (R) is struggling to win an open seat in a heavily Republican district.
A senior GOP strategist said party officials anticipated that the so-called generic vote -- the question of which party voters are likely to support in House elections -- would tighten, but they do not consider the shift significant enough to change the contours of this election. More than 20 GOP incumbents are tied with their opponents heading into the final days. "It is the 50-50 districts that turnout can help," said the strategist, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk about strategy.
Democrats, mindful of the Republicans' success in getting their voters to the polls in the past two elections, expressed nervousness at signs of tightening in some of the national polls. But they said private and some public polling in contested House districts continued to show their party in a position to win enough seats to claim the majority.
"I don't know what to make of it," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Senate races in Virginia, Missouri and Montana, all for seats currently held by Republicans, remained among the closest in the country. Contests in Republican-held Tennessee and Democratic-held Maryland looked tight as well, depending on the poll. One survey showed the race in Rhode Island, a state Democrats must take to win the Senate, very close.
Strategists sought solace in any survey that looked good, but with less than 48 hours remaining before the polls close on Tuesday, both parties concentrated on direct voter contact, built on months of sophisticated analysis of the electorate and microtargeting of tens of millions of voters around the country.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee expected to spend roughly $25 million on its voter mobilization efforts; the DCCC was set to spend $10 million. The Democratic National Committee has given the other committees about $8 million for get-out-the-vote activities.
The Republican National Committee planned to expend about $30 million on its operations. While that was less than the Democrats, Republicans began with a significant advantage in technology and information, having spent tens of millions in earlier campaigns building voter lists and modeling the electorate. Democrats have tried to create those models this year.
Democratic strategists said privately that overall, there is less money flowing into key states this year than during the 2004 presidential election.
Democrats and Republicans were both counting on help from outside groups. Conservative groups were contacting their supporters, while progressive groups like MoveOn.org and America Votes were turning up their operations. MoveOn.org members made 800,000 phone calls yesterday and plan another 1.2 million each today and Tuesday. Organized labor said it would put 30,000 volunteers on the streets to contact union members.
Both sides boasted about their turnout operations. Democrats said they have signed up one volunteer for every 21 voters in Montana, while Republicans said they directly contacted one in 10 registered voters in that state on Saturday alone.
In Missouri, Democrats planned to contact several hundred thousand "drop-off voters" -- those who vote in presidential but not midterm elections -- and tens of thousands of undecided voters before Tuesday. Republicans were contacting about 200,000 targeted Missouri voters a day.
GOP officials said their biggest concern is the inability to turn out voters in districts they did not originally consider at risk. "We're able to move financial resources, but it's almost impossible to get human resources" into these newly competitive districts, said the GOP strategist.
It was that reality that took Bush to the Plains states yesterday. In heavily Republican districts, aides said, the president could make up for what the NRCC could not do. But Bush's schedule this weekend also showed that, because he has less sway with independents, there are many districts where his presence could do as much harm as good.
Elsewhere, in New Hampshire, Rep. Charles Bass (R) has seen his 20-point lead evaporate in the past five weeks, leaving the RNC with little time to implement even a bare-bones version of its mobilization plan, known as the 72-hour program. "We are not counting on them," said Matt Hagerty, campaign manager for Bass.
Instead, Bass is using an old-fashioned operation that relies on volunteers calling supporters, knocking on their doors and sending out 40,000 e-mails reminding them to vote. "We are running the same operation the congressman has run for the last six cycles," said Hagerty.
The DCCC identified 40 competitive districts in September and has continued to focus on them, rather than trying to build get-out-the-vote operations in some of these districts that have unexpected opportunities. Bass's Democratic challenger, Paul Hodes, is getting strategic advice from the DCCC but is relying mostly on a network of volunteers to turn out voters.
"You cannot buy G.O.T.V.," said Dana Houle, campaign manager for Hodes, referring to get-out-the-vote efforts. "You have to lay the foundation in terms of volunteer recruitment months beforehand."
Turnout operations can affect only races that are decided by a few thousand votes. With this in mind, the Philadelphia suburbs have become a key battleground. Both sides anticipated that the rematch between Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) and Democrat Lois Murphy could be decided by a percentage point or two, both plowed resources into the race over the summer in preparation for the final 72 hours of the campaign, and both expressed confidence in their operations.
But it is impossible to determine how voters will react. One group of GOP volunteers hit a leafy neighborhood over the weekend to rally support for Gerlach, but they made contact with only five of 73 GOP households they approached.
The NRCC rushed resources a month ago to New York's 26th District, where Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, chairman of the NRCC, was caught up in the finger-pointing over the handling of the Mark Foley House page scandal. Reynolds's team contacted more than 10 percent of the voters there on Saturday, and Democrats have installed some of their best veteran organizers in the district.
Activity has been especially intense in Indiana's 2nd District, where Rep. Chris Chocola (R) faces possible defeat by Democrat Joe Donnelly. Republicans said they contacted 124,000 households over the past few days -- more than half of all households in the district. One Donnelly canvasser visited so many households in the Logansport area that the local marshal forced him to register as a solicitor.
Contributing to this report were staff writers Peter Baker in Grand Island, Neb.; Charles Babington in St. Louis; Jeffrey Birnbaum in Logansport, Ind.; Juliet Eilperin in Blue Bell, Pa.; and Blaine Harden in Billings, Mont.