Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Worsening disapproval scores for the Democrats in Congress have spawned party-wide fears that voter alienation could give Republicans a chance to make a comeback in 2008.

The Democrats' tumbling voter-approval numbers haven't drawn much attention on the nightly news shows, but they have stirred warnings in the party's inner circles and raised hopes among GOP strategists for the first time since last year's election rout drove them from power.

A string of independent polls in the past two weeks tells the story: -- A nationwide Pew Research Center poll found that barely 33 percent of Americans surveyed "approve of the job performance of the Democratic Congress." Equally disturbing to Democrats, their party's leadership "can claim just a 62 percent approval score among Democrats."

-- The Gallup Poll reported "that 55 percent of Americans disapprove of Democrats in Congress."

These and other internal polls have sent tremors through Democratic ranks, and campaign strategists are warning their party to start taking them seriously before it's too late.

"Democrats should not be for complacency in the face of lost trust in Congress and perceptions that the new Congress is not effective or honoring its pledges," party advisers James Carville and Stan Greenberg warned in a midyear strategy memo to Democratic leaders.

Republican numbers are not any better. But the "Democrats should not relish an increasingly alienated electorate on any grounds; increasing alienation from both parties can drive down turnout and create protest voters looking for other vehicles for change," the two strategists said.

That points to fear of a third-party presidential candidacy that could hurt Democratic chances to win back the White House and undermine their tenuous hold on Congress -- a fear no longer dismissed by party leaders.

The testy political climate can hurt both parties, they said. "The mood of the country grows uglier ... and the Democratic Congress and leaders have lost some of the earlier glow; a 55 percent majority believes Democrats have not made progress on their election pledges," the memo said.

Up until now, Democrats have blamed their declining poll ratings on the party's failure to legislate a troop-withdrawal deadline in the Iraq war. "The Democrats are frustrated. They want the war to end quicker than it appears it will," a senior party official told me. But the finer polling data and reports from the party's grassroots base suggest that voter angst runs deeper than that. They see a party engaged in vengeful inquisitions against the Bush administration that have yielded no evidence of wrongdoing, while poisoning the political atmosphere and sinking Congress deeper into legislative gridlock.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.