Donald Lambro

A wave of Democratic investigations "creates the perception they are launching witch-hunts," said David Wasserman, House elections analyst at the Cook Political Report.

A Greenberg poll accompanying the Carville-Greenberg memo noted ominously "that, faced with the current gridlock, 12 percent want to vote for an independent candidate for president or Congress, a fairly impressive base for an independent candidacy." Worse, they added, "almost a third of independents are ready to respond in this way. The situation in Washington does have consequences, which is why Democrats have an obligation to address the mood" that has alienated voters.

The Democrats' mediocre approval ratings and restive political base have clearly buoyed GOP spirits, particularly at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

"Such widespread dissatisfaction is creating a palpable sense of panic among Democrats," the NRCC crowed in a memo last week in response to the Carville-Greenberg warnings.

An NRCC internal poll of likely voters in 50 targeted districts held by Democrats is fueling GOP hopes they will benefit from the Democrats' troubles. It showed, among other things, that "voters are not only frustrated with the new majority's inability to get things done but that voters are not at all loyal to their current Democrat member and are in a firing mood."

Notably, the poll found that "only 35 percent of the voters say they will vote to re-elect their current Democratic congressman in these districts. Half -- 50 percent -- prefer someone new."

Another bullish sign for the GOP, House candidate recruitment "is way up," officials told me.

Carville and Greenberg disagreed, pointing to their own polling of 1,451 likely voters July 25-30 in 35 key congressional districts that show their incumbents holding "dramatic leads" over any Republican challenger. But none of the polls may mean much until one can match real live candidates against one another in the general election.

Clearly, congressional Democrats and their leaders have failed to meet the minimum expectations of the voters who elected them, as the latest poll numbers attest. This opens a window of opportunity for Republicans and the White House to sharpen issues that will help strengthen their grassroots support and boost their share of independent swing voters who are up for grabs.

Still, Wasserman thinks a lot will depend on how the Iraq war plays out and whether it will dwindle as an issue if, as administration officials have been saying, preliminary troop withdrawals begin next year.

"We could see anything from a handful of small gains for Republicans in the House or a handful of Democratic gains," he said.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.