WASHINGTON -- Republicans face another hostile political climate next year, but GOP congressional election strategists think they may have found a way to overcome it.
According to party officials, the emerging campaign game plan will play off the voters' deepening disapproval of the Democratic-run Congress by urging Republican challengers to run an anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, insurgent campaign.
"We're working closely with our candidates as we head into next year to tell them don't be afraid to run against Republicans as a whole, run against Washington as a whole, talk about runaway spending and pick and choose the issues on which to run against this Congress," a GOP election official told me.
This unorthodox strategy shift comes on the heels of a stunning Gallup survey, showing that only 18 percent of Americans now approve of the job Congress is doing. The plummeting poll numbers represent a crushing blow for Democratic leaders that has lifted GOP hopes for a comeback in 2008 and is raising questions among Democrats here about why so many independents and Democrats are giving them a failing grade and whether they can turn that around before next year's elections.
Most disturbing to senior Democratic officials: The 9-point drop in Congress' job-approval rating has come exclusively from Democrats and independents, with an 11-point drop among Democrats alone.
"The number that interests me most is the collapse of the independents, which dropped 13 points, from 30 percent last month to 17 percent this month," said pollster Frank Luntz, the Republican message maestro who helped the GOP take control of Congress in 1994.
"That's the swing vote. Those are the people who left the GOP in 2006. They did not embrace the Democrats. Their vote was a rejection of the Republicans," Luntz told me. "And now those independents are up for grabs."
But veteran election analysts see the possibility of even deeper trouble in the turbulent political climate that is shaping up, and not just for the GOP, either.
"There are two schools of thought," said elections tracker Charlie Cook in a recent analysis in his Cook Political Report. "The first is that after six and a half years of George W. Bush's presidency, the Republican brand has been badly tarnished." It would "take an enormous amount of luck for Republicans ... to win back control of the Senate or House.
"The other school says that, although the Republican brand has been badly damaged, the public mood remains as ugly today as it was before the tidal-wave election last November. That is that Democrats in Congress have accomplished very little, leaving voters unimpressed with their leadership," Cook said.
"Adherents to this point of view conclude that a problematic volatility has been created for all incumbents and that while voters may still be anti-Republican, they are certainly not pro-Democratic. They warn that voters may be receptive to insurgent candidates of either party or no party come 2008," he said.
This seems to be the emerging campaign strategy that Republican leaders plan to pursue next year, party officials told me.
"We're heading into an anti-incumbent year. Those candidates who can best present themselves as agents of change will succeed in this difficult environment," a key Republican official told me.
To be sure, much of the political alienation among Democratic ranks at the grassroots is due to the Iraq War and the frustration that the party they put back into power has been unable to force a U.S. withdrawal as they had promised in 2006. But disgruntlement runs even deeper among the party faithful, and especially among independents.
"The public is frustrated with the pace of change," a Democratic official acknowledged. "If there is a real division on the issues among us, then this is problematic."
But if the voting public is angry, the message behind the Gallup numbers is that they are angry with the whole political establishment here, the bitter partisanship, the poisonous atmosphere that fuels gridlock.
In this kind of hostile climate, where the Republican brand is tarnished, the only hope of the GOP surviving another election rout is a radically different game plan.
"Democrats promised change. No change has been delivered, and now we are seeing the results of that. This has the makings of an anti-incumbent environment that we believe will benefit Republican challengers next year," said Ken Spain, the National Republican Congressional Committee's spokesman.
As the August congressional recess comes to an end, Republicans say the word coming back from members who have been taking the pulse of the voters is changing a little. "We're hearing less and less about Iraq," said a senior GOP official.
There is a growing feeling that the political needle has moved ever so slightly in President Bush's direction on the war, owing to some limited success from the troop surge. Positive comments from Democrats just back from a tour of Iraq have added to this mood shift.
"We're feeling better about where we are right now," a House GOP leadership official told me.
Such optimism in Republican ranks was rare to nonexistent just one month ago.