Familiar with the lines of battle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANNANDALE, Va. -- Thomas M. Davis III taps his skull with his index

finger.

It's all up here, he indicates, beneath his tousled light-brown hair. All the names of his 434 House colleagues. The demographics of their districts. How redistricting shifted the boundaries. Whether they went for Bush or Gore. Who's running this time. Who's likely to win.

"I've been coloring election maps for 30 years," the Republican congressman said. "After a while, it's pretty easy."

That wealth of knowledge is being tested in this year's battle for control of Congress.

Davis, once a college intern in the Nixon White House, was elected by his Republican colleagues to head their House campaign committee. His job: protect the party's six-seat majority.

Never in the modern era have Republicans held the House for this long. If they succeed in the November election, they will extend their control over an entire decade.

But history says they'll fail.

"The assumption is that Republicans will lose seats," Davis said. Going back to the mid-1800s, the president's party has lost House seats in every midterm election, save two.

A close student of congressional politics since his teens (he attended high school at the U.S. Capitol, where he was a legislative page), Davis knows that trend. He also thinks he can beat the Democrats and defy expectations. He's done it before.

Among insiders, Davis is regarded as a walking almanac of American politics. Out of 280 million citizens, only a handful have a working knowledge of the nation down to the precinct level. He is one of them.

"He knows the country," confirmed Michael Barone, author of The Almanac of American Politics, the campaign bible since 1972.

Davis, 53, is a former county executive from the Northern Virginia suburbs. A baseball fan (an aerial photo of Washington's old Griffith Stadium hangs on his office wall here), he could well play a behind-the-scenes role in attracting a major-league ballclub to the area over the next year.

A Christian Scientist who neither drinks nor smokes, he is to the left of most House Republicans on social issues. He favors abortion rights and thinks his party should do more to attract gay voters.

He also broke with the party on its signature economic issue. He voted against a 1995 tax cut that was part of the "Contract with America."

Nor would he fit in well at the button-down, tight-lipped Bush White House, which puts a high premium on sticking to the script.

Davis conducts freewheeling briefings for Washington reporters as part of the GOP effort to shape perceptions about the election. The sessions are seminars on the micro-politics of 435 House districts, which add up to which party will gain a majority for the rest of Bush's term.

"Once in a while I go off message," acknowledged Davis, whose rumpled appearance is about as far from blow-dried as one can get.

He opposed campaign finance overhaul but refused to echo Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert's dire description of that fight as "Armageddon." If, as expected, the reform measure becomes law, it will have a profound effect on campaigns, Davis says. But, he added, "I'm comfortable that we're going to live just fine under it."

Even conservatives who consider him a flawed messenger for the party were impressed by Davis' performance in the last national election. In a year when Republicans lost the popular vote in the presidential race and were trounced in Senate contests, he was nimble enough to prevent a Democratic takeover of the House.

In an interview, Davis said the key to that year's election boiled down to two factors: how often voters went to church and whether they owned a gun.

Using polling data, Davis identified rural districts, in West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, where culturally conservative voters could be peeled from the Democrats over issues such as gun control and abortion. The result: The Republicans picked up enough seats to keep their losses to a minimum.

"We were lucky in 2000" to spot those trends in time, he said.

The peculiar politics of that year's election is one of the reasons Davis contends that Republicans will survive the mid-term jinx.

Because President Bush lacked coattails in the 2000 election, a below-average number of Republicans were elected to the House. As a result, there are fewer shaky Republican freshmen in danger of being swept out of office this fall.

In addition, once-in-a-decade redistricting might yield Republican gains, though fewer than the party had expected. Democrats around the country have outmaneuvered Republicans in a number of key states, and Davis is no longer predicting an eight- to 10-seat advantage as a result of redistricting. Other Republicans say their party will be lucky to net half that many seats by the time all the new lines are drawn.

Also running contrary to history: Bush's record-high ratings. In mid-term elections, voters often take out their negative feelings about the president on his party's congressional candidates. The overwhelmingly popular campaign against terrorism could take that factor out of play.

How the public will feel about Bush in the fall, though, and whether he will help his party's candidates -- as opposed to not hurting them -- is another matter.

No one knows what will be on the voters' minds eight months from now. But it won't be the Enron scandal, insisted Davis, who said it will be a dim memory by then and won't hurt Republicans. (He has personally made a point, however, of returning the $1,000 Enron donation he received.)

At Amherst College in the early 1970s, Davis wrote his senior thesis on the political realignment then taking place in the South. He now wonders, he said, whether a similar broad shift is under way.

It's a question he has tossed around with Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, whom he has known since their college Republican days -- "back when Rove [who is now bald] had red hair," Davis said.

The answer won't be clear for some time. But another chapter will be written in this year's election results.

In 1994, in the first mid-term vote of Bill Clinton's administration, the Democrats lost 53 House seats. Davis picked up one of them by ousting a vulnerable freshman.

He isn't predicting how many seats will change hands this time. But the battlefield is in view.

Redistricting has protected, or strengthened, the vast majority of incumbents and guaranteed their re-election. Davis' district, which went for Gore, is a good example. But his redrawn district would have gone for Bush by 8 percentage points. The new lines, crafted largely by a longtime Davis adviser, shifted Democratic precincts to a neighboring Democratic incumbent and picked up new Republican neighborhoods.

Across the nation, there will be an election in every House district this fall, but as few as 20 races will be competitive on Election Day. At least one of those will be in Maryland, where Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County is among the Republicans' "toughest incumbent holds, no question about it," Davis said.

Fewer seats in play mean that huge gains for either party are unlikely, which gives Republicans hope that they can overcome history. But a wave favoring one party or the other could materialize just before the election and change everything -- particularly with an uncertain economic climate and the possibility of further terrorist attacks.

"You have an electorate right now that is shifting underneath you," Davis said. "I like to think we're smarter and better [than the Democrats]. But you've got to win it every day."

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