Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- It is getting harder in this hotly contested election year to find Democrats who will talk frankly about their party, its problems and what its agenda should be.

One man who can be counted on to give a candid assessment of the Democrats' prospects is Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff for President Clinton, who is now one of his party's top political advisers and respected elder statesmen.

I spend a lot of time talking to local and state Democratic officials to get a clearer sense of the mood of the country and, in most cases, you get the straight party line filled with anger and rage about the Republicans and little insight into their own party's weaknesses.

Panetta always offers a sober, balanced analysis of both sides of the political equation, and he isn't afraid of lecturing his party when he feels it may be headed in the wrong direction or neglecting the bread-and-butter issues that are most important to rank-and-file voters.

In a recent telephone interview with the low-key former budget director and California congressman, he is blunt about the problems that confront the GOP, but with a hint of sympathy for his longtime rivals -- because his own party has been through many similarly rough periods, too.

"I think we are in one of those cycles in politics where the Republicans in Congress are getting hit on every front and, obviously, the president's polls don't help," Panetta said. "All that, combined with a series of unprecedented crises, from the war in Iraq, gas prices, concerns over the handling of Hurricane Katrina to conservative Republicans expressing great concern [about their party's direction], it's almost as if they can't catch a break.

"The anxiety of the country is there, and people are angry and frustrated and wondering where the country is going," he continued. "In light of that, there isn't any question, in my view, that Democrats would be able to win control of the House and probably capture additional seats in the Senate, though it's going to be much harder to get control of the Senate."

Of course, that's not what the nation's top election forecasters think; none are flatly predicting a change in either house of Congress.

"The 2006 midterm elections are a political analyst's nightmare. The national climate seems to portend big changes, yet race-by-race analyses reveal formidable odds against a Democratic takeover of either the House or the Senate," veteran elections tracker Charlie Cook said in his recent National Journal campaign preview.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.