WASHINGTON -- After the Republicans' trouncing in the 2008 elections put the Democrats back in the White House and strengthened their grip on Congress, party strategists were gleefully writing the GOP's obituary.
"Absent huge Democratic mistakes in the next few years, the Republican Party's road back could very well be a long one," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network (NDN), at the time.
Now, nine months after Republicans' worst political debacle in decades, President Obama and his party are slipping in the polls, and the GOP is poised for a political comeback. Independent pollsters and analysts who track the elections say Republicans will make gains in the governorships and win back a number of House seats in the 2009-2010 election cycle.
A mere six months into his presidency, Obama's approval ratings have fallen from the 70s to the low 50s or high 40s, and the Democrats' once-mighty lead in generic congressional polls has narrowed dramatically.
In what is being seen as a harbinger of next year's midterm elections, Republicans are leading in this year's two gubernatorial races in Virginia and heavily Democratic New Jersey by double digits. Democratic healthcare overhaul legislation has triggered angry nationwide protests and is now opposed by a majority of the American people. Obama's economic-stimulus policies are widely seen as a failure. A looming $1.8 trillion deficit fueled by out-of-control spending has sent the Democrats' poll numbers into a nose dive.
Republicans, championing lower taxes and spending cuts, are not only expected to make gains in congressional districts but have improved their chances in a number of Senate contests as well.
The GOP's fundraising is up, too. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, chaired by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, has added 66,000 new donors to its contributor file this year.
Clearly, the mood of the voters has shifted, and it appears to be moving in the GOP's direction on several fronts.
"It would be hard to envision a political landscape as tilted against the Republicans as it was in 2006 and 2008. There is now a body of polling data to suggest that the generic congressional ballot has closed," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor and elections analyst at the Cook Political Report."In the NBC/Wall Street Journal (poll), Democrats have a seven-point advantage, the smallest it's been since April of 2006. That is all good news for Republicans," Duffy told me.
The independent Gallup Poll reported that "If the elections were held today, 50 percent of U.S. registered voters say they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their district and 44 percent for the Republican candidate."
The Democrats' shrinking margin of support "suggests the 2010 election could be quite close if it were held today given low turnout in midterm elections and the usual Republican advantages in turnout," Gallup said.
"Thus, at this early stage, 2010 does not look like it is shaping up to be as strong a Democratic year as 2006 was, and that could make it difficult for the party to hold onto the gains it made in the 2006 midterm and 2008 presidential elections," the respected polling service said.
Nowhere, perhaps, is the nation's political shift more evident than in the Senate races, where stronger Republican recruiting has raised prospects in a number of heavily Democratic states, some of which have not been on the GOP's radar screen until now. Among them:
-- Connecticut: Five-term Sen. Christopher Dodd, badly weakened by charges he received low-interest mortgage loans from a Countrywide pal, is trailing or tied with two of his potential Republican challengers.
-- California: Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is trailing three-term liberal Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer by a mere four points in the latest Rasmussen poll.
-- Pennsylvania: When Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties, he won endorsements from all the top Democrats, including Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell, amid forecasts he would put the seat in Democratic hands. But Democrats have since cooled to his candidacy, and he faces a primary challenge. A Quinnipiac University poll now shows him in a dead heat with former Rep. Pat Toomey, the expected GOP nominee.
But the 2010 election climate will largely be shaped by the way voters rate Barack Obama's performance as president. A recent Rasmussen daily tracking poll found that the nation's voters strongly disapproved of Obama's performance by 40 percent to 28 percent.
Unless Obama's approval numbers turn around in the second half of this year, Democrats will enter the midterm-election season at a disadvantage when, historically, the party out of power makes gains in Congress.
Republicans intend to turn the 2010 election into a national referendum on his presidency, and the evidence thus far suggests the GOP will likely make significant political gains at his expense.