WASHINGTON – It wasn't too long ago that Democratic leader Harry Reid mused aloud how it would take a miracle for his party to gain a 50-50 tie in the Senate, much less wrest control from Republicans this fall.
No one is claiming divine intervention in the days since. Yet eight months before midterm elections, Republican incumbents in Pennsylvania, Montana, Rhode Island, Ohio and Missouri face difficult races for re-election in a noticeably more challenging political environment for the GOP. And the early polls show a competitive campaign in Tennessee, where Majority Leader Bill Frist is retiring.
"We're feeling pretty good. If they did a snapshot today, the Senate would be 50-50," said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, campaign committee chairman for the Democrats.
"We've got some competitive races, no question," agreed North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Schumer's counterpart at the GOP campaign committee. She predicted a "strong Republican majority" after the elections, and said the GOP will challenge for Democratic seats in Washington, Maryland, New Jersey and elsewhere.
Still, neither Dole nor Frist would predict how many seats will remain in Republican hands after the midterm elections, reflecting a time in which a sort of gallows humor is taking hold. To their chagrin, GOP officials find themselves debating privately whether Democrats have a better chance to pick up the six seats they need to control the Senate -- or the 15 required for a majority in the House.
"If the political environment does not change, the outcome of the 2006 elections becomes increasingly a roll of the dice -- dependent on how the campaigns are run, party and interest group resources and the intensity of base voters to turn out to vote," Republican pollster Ed Goeas wrote recently.
Democratic successes, Republican recruitment stumbles, the scent of scandal and, perhaps most importantly, the deterioration in President Bush's standing in the polls all contributed to the shift.
Bush, buoyed by support for his handling of the war on terror, helped Republicans in the 2002 elections, then again when he ran for a second term in 2004. Now, his overall approval ratings hover at or below 40 percent in some surveys, Democrats have made inroads on the issue of terrorism, and well over a majority of those polled express pessimism about the future.
At this point in the campaign, Democratic hopes begin in Pennsylvania, where State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., an abortion foe, runs consistently ahead of two-term Sen. Rick Santorum. GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, as moderate as Santorum is conservative, is fighting a two-front war. He has a conservative primary challenger, then would face the winner of a Democratic primary in his Democratic state.
GOP Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana is shadowed by questions about his or his aides' ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Some Republicans complain Burns has been slow to organize for a tough race, and he recently shook up his staff.
Two other Republican incumbents appear to face tough challenges, although they present more difficult targets than Santorum, Burns or Chafee.
Sen. Mike DeWine in Ohio is running against Rep. Sherrod Brown in a scandal-scarred state where the political environment borders on toxic for Republicans. DeWine's campaign is expected to launch a round of television commercials on Monday.
In Missouri, Sen. Jim Talent is seeking his second term, and recent surveys show State Auditor Claire McCaskill running even in the polls. The state leans Republican, though, and GOP strategists argue that Talent, like other GOP incumbents, has yet to engage his opponent.
Frist's retirement in Tennessee after two terms cleared the way for a three-way primary among Republicans, while Rep. Harold Ford Jr. quickly emerged on the Democratic side. Ford is the scion of an African-American family that has long wielded political power but also has known scandal.
Whatever the challenges, GOP strategists point out that the campaigns are just beginning.
"The question is, by the time you engage, whether you've built a battleship that can inflict punishment and maybe take a little," said Mark Stephens, Dole's top adviser.
In fact, the past several days produced at least a reminder of the unpredictability of campaigns.
Kate Michelman, the former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, flirted with an independent candidacy in Pennsylvania. She ultimately decided against running, to the relief of Democrats who had feared it might doom Casey to defeat.
For their part, Republicans seek places to counter any losses. Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton's retirement presents arguably their best opportunity in Minnesota, and GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy hopes to succeed him. "We're competitive" as well in Washington, New Jersey, Vermont, Maryland and elsewhere, Dole said.
In particular, Republicans tout their chances against Sen. Bob Menendez in New Jersey. Tom Kean, the son of a former governor, is the GOP candidate, but the state last elected a Republican to the Senate in 1972.
In Maryland, Republicans recruited Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, hoping he will become the only black in his party in the Senate. Early campaign missteps prompted him to shake up his staff.
Early recruiting failures also plague Republicans. Their first choices declined to run against Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad in Republican North Dakota; 88-year-old Robert Byrd in West Virginia; and first-termer Debbie Stabenow in Michigan.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat in a Republican state, caught a break when former Gov. Mike Johanns accepted appointment as Bush's Agriculture Secretary rather than run.
In Florida, Republican strategists have never hidden their fear that Rep. Katherine Harris is too divisive a figure to win statewide. She's running anyway against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
Democratic candidates also will benefit from a prodigious fundraising campaign engineered by Schumer. The Democratic committee had more than $25 million in the bank as of Jan. 31, not only a record but far more than the $11.5 million for the GOP committee.
Republicans counter their total is higher than at the same point two years ago, and that the Republican National Committee has ample resources to help if needed.