WASHINGTON -- Less than two weeks before the midterm elections, the Republican majority in the Senate is very much in jeopardy but new polling suggests that Democrats may fall just short of gaining control.
A new series of polls in five battleground states, conducted for the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News, shows that strong support from rural voters has put Republicans in a slightly better position to win two of three Southern or border states - Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri - where the fight for the Senate could well be decided.
Many analysts and politicians are predicting that, if the election were held today, Democrats would gain enough seats to take over the House of Representatives. But the competition for the Senate, where elections are more likely to be influenced by national trends, is much tighter.
Charles Cook, an independent analyst of congressional races, told a Washington forum yesterday that the Senate is close to the "tipping point" between remaining Republican or going Democratic.
He predicted that Democrats would pick up five or six seats overall. If the gain is five, it would mean an even 50-50 split and allow Vice President Dick Cheney to cast the tiebreaking vote that would keep the Senate in Republican hands. A six-seat gain would switch control of the chamber - what Cook termed a Category Five storm for Republicans.
"It's a Hurricane 4.5," he said. "Right now, it's at the cusp between a four and five" storm.
He emphasized that the outcome could easily change, depending on events over the final 13 days of the campaign. However, the new state polls appear to support his analysis.
In Tennessee, Republican Senate candidate Bob Corker leads Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. by 5 percentage points, 49 to 44, among likely voters, according to the Times/Bloomberg survey. The margin of possible sampling error in that state poll is 4 points.
In Missouri, another closely fought contest, Republican Sen. Jim Talent leads Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill, 48 percent to 45 percent, a statistical tie, because it is within the poll's 3-point margin of error.
The survey was conducted as McCaskill was launching a new ad that features actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and is critical of the Republican senator's opposition to embryonic stem cell research. Fox, who is scheduled to make campaign stops in Illinois and New Jersey, is appearing in a similar ad for Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in the Maryland Senate race, assailing Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele for wanting to limit stem cell research.
The poll found that Missouri voters favor, by 58 percent to 35 percent, a measure on the Missouri ballot that would prevent the state legislature from blocking stem cell research.
In Virginia's Senate race, the poll showed a statistical dead heat, though it is the first independent survey this fall to show Democratic challenger Jim Webb ahead of Republican Sen. George Allen. Webb had 47 percent to Allen's 44 percent, which is within the poll's 5-point margin of error for that state.
Republicans held lopsided leads among rural voters in all three states, the poll found. In Virginia, Allen led Webb among those voters, 60 percent to 33 percent. In Missouri, Talent held a 56 percent to 37 percent advantage over McCaskill. And in Tennessee, Corker swamped Ford, 62 percent to 27 percent.
Independent analysts say Democrats need to win at least two of those three contests to have a shot at picking up the six seats they need to retake the Senate. But Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said he thinks Republicans are likely to hold the two southern seats.
Allen's stumbles during the Virginia campaign might yet cost him re-election, Black said. "But in the end, I think he'll wrap himself around John Warner," his homestate Republican colleague in the Senate, who is appearing in endorsement ads on TV, and eke out a victory.
In Tennessee, he said, Democrat Ford, seeking to become the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South, will have to get about 40 percent of the white vote to prevail. Black predicted that white voters "are going to move away from Ford" after viewing new Republican attack ads that feature black and white Tennesseans criticizing the Democrat, who grew up in Washington, D.C., for lacking genuine home-state roots.
That analysis might have been reflected in the Times/Bloomberg polling, conducted Oct. 20-23, which showed Ford's numbers slipping steadily over the period, when the new ad was airing.
Ford also might have hurt his chances by crashing a Corker news conference Friday to protest the Republican's latest attack on the ethical problems that have dogged Ford's family, which Emory's Black called "very bad politics" on the Democrat's part.
Even if they hold off the Democrats in those states, Republicans might fall short in other states where they had hoped to pick up Senate seats. Cook, whom both parties often cite as an authoritative analyst, predicted that Republican challenges would fail to pan out in Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska and Washington.
He said Republicans still had a long-shot chance of knocking off Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in Michigan. In New Jersey, Republican Tom Kean Jr. is "probably one set of subpoenas short of" defeating Sen. Robert Menendez, he said, referring to allegations of ethical corruption against the Democrat.
The Times/Bloomberg poll showed Menendez with 45 percent to Kean's 41 percent, a statistical dead heat because of the poll's 5.5-percentage point margin of error. The survey indicated that the corruption issue was only marginally helping Kean, with voters saying, by 17 percent to 11 percent, that Democrats have a greater problem with corruption than Republicans. However, a clear majority, 61 percent, said both parties are equally corrupt.
Ohio is one of four states where Cook and other analysts are predicting that Democrats have a good chance of gaining seats. The others are Pennsylvania, Montana and Rhode Island.
Karlyn Bowman, an opinion analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the latest nationwide surveys, including polls by the Gallup organization and ABC News/Washington Post, suggest that Republicans have begun to show greater enthusiasm about voting for the first time. Up to now, Democrats have been exhibiting far greater intensity and eagerness to vote on Nov. 7.
Otherwise, she said, "there isn't much good news for the Republicans in any of these polls." The unpopular war in Iraq, Bowman noted, "is what people are thinking about."
Former House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas, speaking at the same law-firm-sponsored forum with Cook, sharply criticized his former colleagues in the Republican-led Congress for not giving the party's candidates a better record to run on. He said Congress had wasted time dealing with social issues such as gay marriage and the Terry Schiavo case, while failing to address broader concerns of spending and taxes.
"There's been a whole lot of demagoguery on a whole lot of issues that left a lot of voters frustrated," Armey said.
The Times/Bloomberg poll showed that, in the five states surveyed, Democrats had wiped out a traditional Republican advantage when voters were asked which party could do a better job of handling taxes. Also, it found that the recent sharp drop in the cost of gasoline does not seem to have benefited Republicans. In all five states, voters by a wide margin said Democrats would do a better job of handling gas prices.
President Bush's unpopularity continues to weigh on Republicans as well. Except for Tennessee, where voters split evenly on the question, voters in the battleground states were more likely to say that their votes in the Senate race were against Bush and his policies, rather than for them.
Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said Democrats are optimistic about their chances in Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri, while conceding that "we don't know what's going to happen in the Senate races. "
Dean told MSNBC, "If you'd asked me five weeks ago if the Senate was competitive, I would have thought to myself, well, probably not as much as I wish it. Well, now it really is."