Donald Lambro

While the state remains strongly Democratic, it has been trending Republican lately, following the 2002 election of GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty who has significantly improved the economy and held the line on taxes.

Kennedy is an attractive and articulate candidate who has strong White House backing which means heavy fundraising help from President Bush.

Perhaps the most interesting Republican opportunity of all is in the state of Maryland, one of the country's bluest Democratic states -- until Gov. Bob Ehrlich and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, kicked the Democrats out of the state house in 2002 and breathed new life into a moribund GOP.

When Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes announced last year that he would not seek re-election, just about everyone believed the seat would remain safely in Democratic hands. But when Steele, an African-American with strong statewide name ID, announced that he was in the running, all bets were off.

The Democrats' core political strength in the state is in heavily black Baltimore and Prince Georges counties. But Steele will be competitive in both jurisdictions, while drawing strong support from Republicans and swing independent voters elsewhere in the state.

Steele's candidacy is so feared by Maryland Democratic lawmakers that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), under the hands-on chairmanship of New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, tried to dig up some dirt on him by prying into his credit records (a crime that resulted in two DSCC investigators being fired).

To be sure, Maryland remains a very Democratic state, but at this early juncture, polls show Steele within striking distance of his Democratic rivals.

The result of all this could well be a wash in which Senate Republicans emerge after some losses elsewhere with their five-seat majority intact.

Meantime, no one predicts a Democratic takeover in the House, where at best fewer than three-dozen seats are competitive, though the Democrats could gain half a dozen or so if everything goes their way -- far from the 15 seats needed to regain control.

Even so, the political landscape could change dramatically by then in the GOP's favor.

President Bush's job approval numbers rose last month, though still remain below 50 percent, as Americans sensed political progress being made in Iraq. The increasing turnover of security responsibilities to the Iraqis and the start of U.S. troop withdrawals this year will likely move his polling numbers higher. On the economic front, the campaigns begin with the surveys showing consumer confidence up significantly and forecasters predicting that the nation's economy will continue to grow around 3.5 percent this year.

Meantime, Bush is telling aides that he intends to campaign hard for his party in the fall, just as he did in 2002 and 2004, a prospect that can't make the Democrats feel very good about their chances.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.