WASHINGTON – Preparations for the Fourth of July in Washington mean politicians are making final preparations for their fall election campaigns.
In the 435-member House, this year's battle for majority control will likely be incredibly close. Polls identify only 10 vulnerable incumbent Democrats and just 18 vulnerable Republicans. Nineteen seats have no incumbent, so the GOP, with a slim six-vote majority, thinks it can maintain control.
"I think you're looking at a status-quo election," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti. "The possibility exists for a two or three-seat gain or loss either way, but in general it's probably status quo."
That would be a victory for President Bush, since historically the party in power at the White House loses seats.
But the Democrats are counting on tradition, and have started blasting Republicans on domestic issues -- Social Security, health care, education, the environment and the economy. They also have the added issue of trying to taint the GOP with corporate scandals like Enron and WorldCom.
"There is a lot of angst among voters about where the economy is headed, about what's happening to their investments, what's happening to their retirement," House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., recently said.
Democrats are also beginning to question international policy, including the cost, progress and the direction of the war on terror, and the administration's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Republicans, however, are eager to emphasize foreign policy and the war on terror because they can tap into the president's soaring popularity. Domestically, the GOP is focused on economic recovery and neutralizing the Democrats' attacks by campaigning on welfare and education reform.
They'll also accuse Democrats of obstructing everything from the president's judicial nominations to plans to stimulate the economy and reshape the military.
The stakes are high. A one-seat gain in the Senate gives the GOP the majority.
But it is way too close to call. Republicans have targeted six vulnerable Democrats. Democrats, in turn, see three particularly weak incumbent Republicans and four formerly Republican seats that have no incumbent. It could turn out to be a wash for both parties, but if the Democrats win, it will be historic because it will be the fourth election in a row in which they have gained a seat.
When it comes to this year's 36 governors' races, however, Democrats have a big advantage. Two thirds of the seats are occupied by Republicans, so Democrats have less at risk.
Inside the GOP from the White House to the Capitol, there is growing resignation that for the first time since 1994, Democrats could end up with a majority of governors' offices, which produce invaluable organization and clout when it comes to the next presidential race.