Donald Lambro
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WASHINGTON -- The conventional wisdom among most of the political pundits and prophets here is that the Republican brand isn't selling so hot because of President Bush's decline in the polls. But the conventional wisdom often turns out to be wrong in politics, and 2006 may well be the year when that happens.

The White House and the Republicans are going through some tough times politically, no question about that. But so are the Democrats, even in the Northeast blue states where you would expect them to be doing well.

Let's take the Democratic-leaning red state of Pennsylvania as Exhibit A. Everyone knows Republican Sen. Rick Santorum is running behind his Democratic rival, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., who is 10 points ahead of the GOP lawmaker in most polls.

But did you know that Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who will be up for re-election next year, is also in trouble?

In a survey that produced what independent pollster John Zogby called "stunning numbers," Rendell, he said, "is in a pitched battle, endangered by candidacies from either Bill Scranton, a former lieutenant governor and scion of a powerful political family, or Lynn Swann, the great Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver turned conservative novice political candidate."

Rendell, the tough-talking Keystone state governor who apparently is not well liked by Pennsylvanians, is in a statistical dead heat with Scranton, who is running just three points behind -- 44 percent to 41 percent. Swann is running four points behind, 47 percent to 43 percent.

These are astonishing numbers at this early stage in the election cycle, suggesting that a prominent Democratic governor from a major electoral state is in danger of being knocked off by the Republicans. Apparently, the GOP brand is selling better in some states than the pundits would want us to believe and the Democratic brand is losing market share.

The depth of Rendell's troubles can be seen in other polling numbers. His favorable ratings are nearly as high as his unfavorables -- 39 percent to 38 percent -- according to a Franklin & Marshall College Keystone Poll of 1,145 Pennsylvanians, including 522 registered voters, conducted Nov. 2 through 7.

One reason: 52 percent say the state is on the wrong track, versus 39 percent of those who say we are headed in the right direction.

Consider Exhibit B in the reddest of red states, New Jersey, where Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine just won the governorship. Some say that the GOP is finished there for the time being. Well, not exactly, Polls show that the Republicans' likely nominee to replace Corzine in the Senate next November is leading several House Democrats who intend to run for the open seat.

He is Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the minority whip in the New Jersey Senate and son of the state's popular former governor, Tom Kean, who chaired the 9/11 Commission. Recent polls by John Zogby and The Wall Street Journal are showing surprisingly strong support for him at this juncture in the '06 cycle -- not a good sign for Democrats.

Among the House Democrats planning to get into the race, Zogby polls show Kean leading Rep. Rob Andrews by a hefty 46 percent to 36 percent and Rep. Bob Menendez by 43 percent to 34 percent. Another Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., is also looking at the race.

Besides Kean's high family-name recognition, campaign analysts and party pros think he will also be helped by what promises to be a crowded and divisive Democratic primary.

"Although the Garden State has not been very hospitable to Republican nominees for federal office, a fractured Democratic party and a strong GOP nominee could make the Senate race worth watching," says election tracker Stuart Rothenberg.

Republican campaign officials here were eyeing this Senate race even before the November gubernatorial election, expecting that Corzine would win and his seat would be up for grabs. "As much as we wanted to win the governorship, part of us hoped Corzine would win so the seat would open up, because we have a good shot at getting it," a Republican Party campaign official told me.

North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign chairwoman, is wasting no time boosting Kean's candidacy. She is scheduled to speak at a Kean state fund-raiser on Dec. 6 and promises to pull out all the stops at the NRSC to get him elected.

"We want to make an early statement. New Jersey is a symbol of how Republicans are on the offense in the blue states," said NRSC spokesman Brian Nick.

But Pennsylvania and New Jersey aren't the only blue states where the GOP's future is looking brighter.

Senate Republican prospects are growing stronger in Minnesota and Maryland, too, where Democratic incumbents are not seeking re-election -- further evidence that the GOP name brand is still a marketable commodity, no matter what the polls are saying in Washington.

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Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.