Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- There's a pivotal question pundits were not asking this week as the midterm elections officially got under way: What if the political climate dramatically changes in the GOP's favor?

Two months before Election Day, some things were happening in the political environment that showed how quickly the tide can turn in the rough and tumble of American elections.

Earlier this week, Chevron's announcement of major new oil discovery in the Gulf of Mexico -- perhaps the biggest in a generation, with a potential yield of 400,000 barrels per day -- had a positive impact on the oil markets.

Oil and gas prices were already falling significantly as we entered Labor Day weekend, the combined result of reduced fears of supply interruptions in global markets, especially in the Gulf, and a falloff in demand for gas in the United States as the summer-vacation driving season came to a close.

As this is written, the national average price of gas at the pump was $2.70 a gallon and falling, while oil had dropped from $77 a barrel to $69 or less. Further price reductions will likely ease the squeeze on consumer budgets at a time when Republicans need all the good news they can get.

While this alone may not be enough to overcome the electorate's sour mood about a number of vexing issues -- from the increasing violence in Iraq to the failure of Congress to pass an immigration fix-it bill -- it chips away at one of the biggest voter complaints.

Still, the environment heading into the general-election season could not be worse for President Bush and the GOP. With the exception of his 55 percent approval score on the war on terrorism, he receives failing grades on just about every other issue -- from (inexplicably) the economy to Iraq. Voters take an even dimmer view of Congress, with its approval polls falling to the low 30s. Veteran election forecasters were flatly predicting the Democrats would take back the House and eat into the GOP's 55-seat majority in the Senate. Analyst Stu Rothenberg's latest forecast of Democratic gains was revised upward to between 15 and 20 additional House seats -- enough to take control of the chamber and effectively kill Bush's remaining agenda.

Usually cautious elections tracker Charlie Cook summed up the GOP's future this way over Labor Day weekend: If "the political climate remains as it is today -- a very big 'if' -- Republicans will likely lose the House and their dominance of the nation's governorships but hang on to the Senate by a thread."

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.