After millions of dollars in ads, polls and six-figure consultants, the 2006 elections could turn on one final, frantic, door-to-door battle: Who wins the get-out-the-vote game.
A little more than a week before voters go to the polls to decide who will control Congress next year, that game is being played out in a half-dozen battleground Senate races and 40 to 50 closely contested House elections across the country.
While the Democrats are leading in the Senate races (enough to take control of that chamber) and in 20 or more House races (they need only 15 to take charge), many contests appear close enough where turnout could make the crucial difference. That is, keeping Democratic gains lower than they would be otherwise.
No one doubts which party has the stronger voter-turnout ground game: the Republicans.
"It's a great, sustaining grassroots operation with a large degree of centralized direction, and Democrats have not done that. It's very sophisticated," said Curtis Gans, the pre-eminent voter-turnout specialist who heads American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate. But Gans does not think the Republicans' turnout army -- which held off a fierce Democratic offensive in 2004 -- will be enough to save the GOP this time.
Still, contrary to a belief in some GOP circles that its base is fragmented and disillusioned, polls show Republicans rallying to their party. This week, for example, a Washington Post-ABC News survey showed 88 percent of GOP voters supporting their party in the congressional elections.
However, it also shows 95 percent of the Democrats and a whopping 59 percent of independents favoring the Democratic candidate in their congressional districts.
Stronger Republican voter turnout in a number of the closest House races could conceivably overcome that disadvantage in Republican-drawn districts where GOP voters vastly outnumber Democrats.
That's what Republican national chairman Ken Mehlman is hoping for, anyway, to save as many of their lawmakers as possible from defeat.
Mehlman, the architect of the 2004 get-out-the-vote operation, has been fine-tuning his grassroots army ever since -- adding to his voter lists and building a ground force that has been sending a steady stream of weekly voter-contact reports from the precinct level up the chain of command. It is an impressive operation run out of the Republican National Committee's "turnout war room" here, and Mehlman remains as confident as ever that it will keep Congress in GOP hands once again.