Donald Lambro

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.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.