WASHINGTON -- Republicans have moved closer to the Democrats in a congressional voter-preference poll just as the election campaigns near the official Labor Day starting gate.
The surprising findings in a little-noticed Gallup Poll that were ignored by most of the national news media shows the Democrats barely leading the Republicans by just two points -- 47 percent to 45 percent.
After months of generic polling numbers by Gallup and others showing the GOP lagged far behind the Democrats by a seemingly insurmountable 9 to 10 points, the titanic political battle for control of Congress is virtually dead even. This means we may not experience the feared Category 5 political storm some election analysts have forecast that would topple the GOP's House majority and cut deeply into its grip on the Senate.
The venerable and respected Gallup organization, which did the poll for USA Today, said the GOP's unexpected rise in the polls "represents the Republicans' best performance in a single poll during the 2006 election cycle on this important measure of electoral strength."
In an analysis accompanying its findings last week, Gallup said, "The Republican increase does appear to be significant."
If the race is anywhere near as tight as Gallup said, it gives the GOP a much stronger edge in this year's elections. The chief reason: Republicans tend to turn out in larger numbers in midterm elections. Moreover, the GOP's high-tech, volunteer-driven, voter-turnout apparatus is far superior to anything the Democrats are attempting to patch together.
Who says so? Democrats themselves. "We're not going to be able to match their turnout system," a senior Democratic confessed to me earlier this month. Gallup also acknowledges that Republican voters "are likely to perform better at the polls in November than would be indicated by pre-election surveys based on registered voters."
What has moved the GOP's numbers upward so swiftly?
A big factor was Bush's ascending movement in his job-approval polls to 42 percent, according to Gallup. That's still way below his presidency's highs, but the steady summer climb out of the 30s to 40 percent and, more recently, to 42 percent shows he has halted his downward spiral, especially among Republicans who are beginning to come back home as Bush sharpens the issues in the war on terrorism that divide the two parties.
Equally important was Bush's full-throated response to the foiled Islamic terrorist plot to blow up 10 passenger jets en route to the United States from Great Britain.
In a brilliant piece of intelligence work by British agents, with the help of United States and other intelligence services abroad, Bush jumped on the episode, showing that the terrorist threat to America was still dangerous and could happen at any time, unless we keep up our guard and improve the U.S. intelligence and global-surveillance weapons at our disposal.
His message - that the terrorists have to be right only once, but we have to be right 100 percent of the time -- struck a devastating note at the psyche of the American people who tire of the Iraq war but know we cannot end the war against those who want to blow up Americans.
As I forecast in an earlier column, the bomb plot pushed the president's job-approval score on his handling of terrorism to 55 percent. Americans will vote on many issues that concern them, but safeguarding homeland security has suddenly become a hot issue again. Bush is not going to let that issue fade in the weeks and months to come, senior officials told me last week.
Neither are the Republicans who intend to keep it at the center of their campaign agenda and in sync with Bush's message.
Another factor behind the Republicans' end-of-summer rise in the polls: They have spent the past month reminding voters, particularly the party's base, what they have done for their states and districts. Despite all the justified criticism about wasteful pork-barrel spending, the fact remains that most voters like their tax dollars coming back to them in bridge, road and other public-works projects, and members aren't shy about reminding them about the bacon they've brought home.
A few weeks ago, the Democrats were flying high in the generic polls, foretelling a wave of Republican losses in the House and Senate. But the once-hostile environment has turned noticeably friendlier for Republicans as voters contemplate putting liberal, anti-war Democrats in charge of national security and Bush and the GOP sharpen their message for the campaign to come.