WASHINGTON -- Republicans have been hit hard in the past few weeks on the Iraq war and the Mark Foley page scandal, halting their comeback in the polls and raising Democratic hopes of retaking the House.
The party-preference polls, which turned upward in September for the GOP, were down sharply again in a roller-coaster election ride that has four weeks to go before it comes to an abrupt and merciful stop on Nov. 7.
A Washington Post front-page headline Tuesday blared its poll findings, showing a "strong shift of support to Democrats." Congress' job-approval score had plunged to 32 percent, its lowest in a decade, and Americans, by 54 percent to 35 percent, said they trusted Democrats more than Republicans to solve the nation's problems.
Even more depressing for the GOP, Democrats led Republicans by 55 percent to 39 percent on the question of which party deserved to be re-elected next month.
But in politics, as in other quintessential American challenges, hope springs eternal. If the numbers remain the same or worsen, the GOP could lose as many as 30 seats, said Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, the GOP's former congressional campaign chairman. But top Republican officials think they have time to turn things around between now and Election Day.
For starters, GOP strategists took comfort in the Post's finding (buried deeply in the story) that "60 percent of those surveyed in the new poll said they approve of the performance of their own member."
As for the House-page scandal, polls show it will have little impact on how people vote. Only two in 10 said it would in the Post survey. This is confirmed by the GOP's own internal polling in the past week. "The anger at the grassroots is geared toward one man, Mark Foley," a senior party official said. Meanwhile, despite the Democrats' relentless criticism that Iraq has little or nothing to do with the war on terrorism, 51 percent still "agreed with (President) Bush's argument that Iraq is a front in the global campaign against terrorism," the Post said.
As for the Democrats' anti-war push for getting out of Iraq, "there is no significant support for withdrawing U.S. forces immediately," the Post said. Only one-fifth would support such a move.
Republican officials hope to hold their ground on Iraq as they regroup for the final weeks of a campaign offensive marked by a major TV-ad blitz that will, among other things, warn voters of the Democrats' far-left agenda if they take control of the House. That agenda includes:
A rollback of the Bush tax cuts that would hurt business, workers and families alike; a sharp boost in the federal minimum wage to more than $7 that would sandbag small businesses, the engine for most new job creation; a cornucopia of higher social welfare spending that has been simmering on Democratic backburners since the Clinton years; and a renewed attack on the anti-terrorism weapons that Bush and the GOP Congress have put in place -- from the USA Patriot Act to improved intelligence surveillance and spying techniques to keep America safe.
One of the important strategic realities in this election is that as bad as the GOP's approval polls are (63 percent disapprove), Democrats in Congress aren't getting passing grades, either.
Buried at the bottom of the Post's story, where fewer readers would see it, was the finding that Americans are deeply divided about the Democrats' performance in Congress: "48 percent approve, 50 percent disapprove."
But the last line of defense for Republicans will be its high-tech voter-turnout drive, senior party officials told me this week. Polls show the Republicans have rallied around their embattled president and party. The Post poll said 82 percent of Republicans approved of the job Bush was doing, up from 68 percent in May.
"We have a grassroots turnout effort we've been fine-tuning since the last election cycle that will be second to none on Election Day," said a high-level Republican official.
But in the present climate, even a superior turnout ground game may not be enough to save the Republicans in the 30 or more House races where the GOP's endangered candidates are struggling to overcome a fierce Democratic offensive. They are going to need a stronger, sharper message that seems to have gotten lost during the page-scandal story that was a distraction from Bush's efforts to refocus the campaign on the growing terrorist threat. No doubt the White House will get back on message as the coverage of the Foley story recedes.
All the while, the price of gas continues its decline toward the $2 a gallon range, the economy was creating more than 120,000 new jobs a month in the third quarter, consumer confidence has rebounded, the stock market is in the midst of a bull rally, mortgage rates are falling and the economy is on solid ground. These are the makings of a political comeback, but can the Republicans pull it off in time?