WASHINGTON -- Even the most partisan Democrats have said all year they expected their 6- to 10-point advantage over the Republicans in the party-preference polls to tighten as Election Day neared.
But certainly no one expected the midterm congressional elections to tighten as much as they have so early in the general election cycle.
Earlier this month, the Gallup Poll reported a 4- to 6-point advantage for the Democrats, which fell to 2 to 3 points, and is now down to a "dead heat" among likely voters who say they will vote Republican (48 percent) and those who say they will vote Democratic (48 percent).
This is not to say the GOP will dodge the bullet and still hang on to majority control of the House. Democrats have maintained an advantage all year among registered voters and still do. But historically, the turnout record among registered voters has lagged behind likely voters, a group that pollsters consider to be a much more accurate measurement of the electorate's preferences.
Midterm elections tend to draw a smaller voter turnout than presidential elections, and Gallup pointed out, in an analysis of their latest findings, that if the race is a dead heat nationally among likely voters, Republicans have the potential to offset the Democrats' lead among registered voters "with greater turnout" from their base. That's because the Republicans are better at the voter-turnout game than the Democrats -- a talent they demonstrated in 2000, 2002 and 2004.
But for the first time this year, Gallup not only said the battle for control of Congress is a dead heat, it said that if the GOP's much-improved numbers "persist until Election Day, it suggests Republicans would be able to maintain their majority-party status in the House."
All of this is the result of some amazing campaigning by President Bush (that has lifted his anemic job-approval scores to 44 percent) and several weeks of speeches refocusing the nation on the war on terrorism and connecting it to the war in Iraq. Polls show his strategy has been a key factor in moving the numbers in the GOP's direction.
Democratic strategists such as Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, conceded that Bush's efforts to elevate the terrorism issue in the campaign "has been marginally effective. The Republicans got a bounce out of the 9/11 speech. The president does have the ability to change the debate in the country. The problem is, it is not sustainable."
In fact, additional polling data released by Gallup within the past week or two suggested that not only is the president changing the voters' attitudes on the Iraq war but the Democrats' failure to shape a clear, convincing message about dealing with terrorism and Iraq has hurt them.
Here's what the nonpartisan Gallup Poll has to say about all this in a separate analysis of its numbers:
"Americans are more positive about the war on terror, and voters are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports Bush on terrorism rather than one who opposes him. By a slight margin, Americans tend to think that the country will be safer from terrorism if the GOP retains control of the House, rather than if the Democrats take control.
"And voters are now as likely to say that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror as say it is not," Gallup said.
Missing from all the yearlong political analysis we've heard about the GOP's troubles is the unspoken realization that the Democrats are in deep trouble, too. To be sure, a majority of Americans still disapprove of Bush's handing of the war in Iraq, but only one in four now "believes the Democrats have a clear plan on Iraq -- fewer than those who say this about the Bush administration," Gallup said.
"Also, Americans are about equally likely to say they would vote for a candidate who supports President Bush on Iraq as to vote for a candidate who opposes Bush," the analysis said.
What should worry Democratic campaign officials "is the fact that only 14 percent say the Democrats have a clear plan but Bush does not, while a greater percentage (23 percent) says Bush has a clear plan but the Democrats do not," Gallup said.
This is all pretty strong stuff from the premier polling organization in the country, known for its caution and evenhanded approach to the vicissitudes of voting trends in the elections.
But a survey of the past week's polls and what is happening in many of the races appeared to confirm Gallup's findings.
The Los Angeles Times, which polled 1,347 registered voters, last week reported, "On virtually every comparison between the parties measured in the survey, Republicans have improved their position since early summer.
"In particular, Republicans have nearly doubled their advantage when voters are asked which party they trust most to protect the nation against terrorism," the newspaper said.
Of course, this election will not be decided by a national vote but by who wins in some 30 competitive congressional districts and a half-dozen Senate races. There's no doubt the Democrats will gain seats on Nov. 7, but Gallup's numbers suggest the Republicans clearly have the momentum right now.