WASHINGTON - Two years after a dead-even presidential vote, a nation still split down the middle is heading into the midterm election with both houses of Congress up for grabs.
Every possible result is within reach: a complete takeover of Capitol Hill by either party; a switch of control in both chambers; or no change, with Democrats still running the Senate and Republicans the House.
The election will also decide 36 governorships, including the major states of California, New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Rising voter discontent over state budget problems is causing unexpected difficulty for officeholders at the state level, such as Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who faces a tougher-than-expected race for governor against Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
As campaigns hit the traditional Labor Day kickoff point, a clear trend has yet to emerge, according to strategists and officials in both parties.
The issues that voters seem to care most about, which mainly revolve around the economy, typically favor Democratic candidates. But Republicans are in surprisingly strong shape, at least by historical standards.
'Almost evenly divided'
Barring unforeseen developments over the next nine weeks, most analysts expect only a modest shift one way or the other.
"The country is almost evenly divided between the two parties," said Gary Jacobson, a University of California, San Diego political scientist. "There's no tide for either party to ride. This looks to me like a straight status quo election."
It wouldn't take much to change the balance of power, though. Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said there hasn't been another midterm election, at least since the Civil War, in which party control of Congress was divided and the two chambers were as evenly split as they are this year.
In the Senate, where 34 seats are being contested, Republicans need only one more seat to regain control, which they lost last year after the defection of Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords.
At least four Democratic senators are in tough re-election fights: Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Jean Carnahan of Missouri. On the Republican side, the most endangered incumbents are Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, Wayne Allard of Colorado and Bob Smith of New Hampshire.
Unless all the close races tip in favor of the same party, officials say, the overall shift in the Senate will be fewer than five seats. That would leave whoever holds the majority with fewer than the 60 votes usually needed to approve major legislation on a party-line vote.
Karl Rove, the White House political director, sees a "very diffuse" electoral environment in which local factors will outweigh national ones.
"The outcome of races is going to be determined more by the quality of the candidates and the campaigns they mount and by issues that are particular to that state," said Rove, who had said this year that President Bush's handling of the war on terrorism would be the focus of his party's midterm campaigns.
The director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Jim Jordan, calls the Bush adviser's latest statement a "very telling" sign that the White House has lost hope that Republican candidates will "ride to victory on the back of George Bush and his high approval ratings."
Campaigns "are being fought over issues like Social Security, prescription drugs and pension security, which all favor Democratic candidates," Jordan added.
That explains the drumbeat of administration warnings about the need to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Democratic aide said.
"The White House is desperate to change the subject. We have every reason to believe the saber-rattling is going to get louder the closer we get to November," he said.
In the fight for the House of Representatives, Democrats are pessimistic, at least in private, about their ability to gain the six seats they need to take control. Republicans have held the majority since the 1994 midterm election - the last time a large number of seats changed hands.
All 435 House seats are at stake this fall. But there are competitive races in fewer than 50 districts, divided about evenly between the parties. Two are in Maryland: the Baltimore-area seat being vacated by Ehrlich and the Montgomery County district of Rep. Constance A. Morella, possibly the most vulnerable Republican in the House.
Although Democrats can point to factors that might normally favor their candidates - a struggling economy, questions about the ethics of corporate executives and deepening voter pessimism about the direction the country is headed - these have yet to generate a tailwind for Democratic candidates, according to pollsters.
A national tide might yet develop, in the ebb and flow of public opinion before Election Day. Adding to what some see as an unusually volatile election season would be the impact of unforeseen events leading up to Nov. 5, from another stock market tumble or terrorist attack to U.S. military action against Iraq.
Unlikely to influence many contests: the attacks of Sept. 11.
"It's just collapsed as an issue," said David Hill, a Republican pollster based in Texas.
In January, Rove, the president's top political adviser, told the Republican National Committee that Republicans could "go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America."
Predictions that the attacks would generate a surge of civic-mindedness and re-energize the public's interest in government have also failed to come true. Turnout in primary elections this year has been below average, according to the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
Bush, who is conducting a vigorous fund-raising effort on behalf of his party's candidates, reminds partisan audiences that "we are at war."
Past midterm elections
Democrats might not be able to rely much on history, though. Usually, the party in the White House, in this case Republicans, loses House seats in the first midterm of a new presidency.
That happens, in part, because the new president sweeps some of his party's weaker congressional candidates into office with him; many of those freshmen are swept out again two years later.
But Bush not only lost the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore, but Republicans also lost one House seat in the 2000 election. As a result, there are relatively few vulnerable Republican freshmen running for re-election.
The once-a-decade reapportionment that follows the census also shifted House seats from older Democratic states to faster-growing Republican ones. That is expected to help Republicans pick up a handful of seats, perhaps enough to keep Democrats from taking the House.
In 1998, the president's party gained seats in a midterm election for the first time since 1934. Republican efforts to make President Bill Clinton's sexual behavior a campaign issue misfired.
Republicans are hoping to match the Democratic performance of that most recent midterm election. They feel more confident about holding onto the House than about reclaiming the Senate.
Because "the nation is politically evenly divided," presidential adviser Rove said, the contest for the Senate will go down to the wire.
Or possibly beyond. If no one wins a majority of the vote in Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu's three-way re-election race in Louisiana on Nov. 5, a runoff election would take place the next month, with control of the Senate the potential prize.