WASHINGTON // Presidential races are intensifying on both sides, and the story lines are choice:
The campaign is playing out against a backdrop of unusually consequential issues and themes: an unpopular war, simmering fears of another terrorist strike, a visceral backlash against illegal immigrants, disgust with Washington gridlock, and a strong desire for change.
But there's another important election in 2008 - the one for control of Congress - though no one is likely to pay it much attention.
It's as vital to the country's future as the presidential race, since it could well determine how much gets done in Washington once the new president is sworn in.
Voters are saying they want the government to tackle the country's big problems, such as rising health care costs, dependence on foreign energy, out-of-control borders and the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They've also made it abundantly clear they don't think the current crowd is getting the job done. Congress' approval rating is miserable, even lower than President Bush's.
But since taking over, the Democrats have been unable to get much done, disappointing those who elected them. Bush has continued to run the war in Iraq his way, and other problems the federal government was expected to fix, such as immigration, have proved too tough for the Democratic leadership.
And so the obvious questions: Will 2008 be another turnover year? Will a fed-up electorate toss out incumbents in large numbers? Will they flip control of Congress back to the Republicans, especially if a Republican wins the presidency?
Voters may be unhappy, but, polls show, they're in no mood to put Republicans in charge of Congress. State-by-state election analyses show Democrats heavily favored to keep control of the House and expand their numbers in the Senate.
"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind," says Stuart Rothenberg, who tracks congressional elections for his independent newsletter. "The only question is the size of their majorities."
Retirements: As senators and congressmen decide whether it's worth coming back for another term, a growing number are leaving office. So far, 20 have announced that they are quitting, and all but one are Republicans.
Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the second-ranking Republican, didn't even wait for his term to end. He's giving up his seat five years early, apparently to avoid more onerous ethics rules that would apply to him if he retired after the end of this year.
Lott's decision to sell out (he's expected to earn millions as a lobbyist) is a reflection, among other things, of the 66-year-old's calculation that he wouldn't be back in the majority any time soon.
"You can have 'U.S. Senator' in front of your name, but if you're not in the majority party, it doesn't make a lot of difference. You have a lot of perks, but you really don't have a lot of power," says Eddie Mahe, a Republican strategist, who rates his party's chances of regaining the Senate in '08 as "hopeless."
Republicans are favored to keep the Mississippi seat, but retirements are hurting their chances of wiping out the Democrats' slim two-seat advantage.
Democrats are heavily favored to pick up the Virginia seat of retiring Republican Sen. John W. Warner. Two more openings, created by the retirements of Republican incumbents in New Mexico and Colorado, are rated as good possibilities for Democratic pickups.
In the House, a dozen retirements have put Republican seats at risk in Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, Arizona and New Mexico.
Endangered incumbents: Republicans always knew that 2008 would be difficult, since they must defend almost twice as many Senate seats (23) as the Democrats (12).
But a closer look by Congressional Quarterly found an even wider disparity. Seven of the eight most competitive Senate races are for Republican seats, the magazine concluded, including incumbents in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Maine and Oregon.
Democratic gains in the Senate could run anywhere from two to seven seats, predicts Rothenberg, noting that "there's a huge difference between two and seven."
Seven would give Democrats a total of 58, putting them well within reach, depending on the issue, of the magic number (60) needed to overcome delaying tactics by the minority. The result would be a far higher degree of control for the Democratic leadership.
In the House, the drawing of district lines to benefit one party or the other, as well as other incumbent-protection factors, has, once again, left little room for competition. Nationwide, only 45 incumbents face serious competition, according to CQ's race-by-race analysis, a number split almost evenly between the parties.
But when Republican open seats are factored in, Democrats get the edge. They're favored to gain fewer than a dozen seats. Rothenberg predicts there could be little or no net change, or a Democratic gain of fewer than 10 seats.
That would still leave Democrats in charge, since they hold 233 of the 435 seats in the House. The Republicans would need to pick up 16 seats to regain control.
Wild cards. Presidential "coat-tails," a phenomenon more talked-about than real in recent years, could alter these predictions. Winning candidates can, and do, sweep others into office, if they manage to get elected in a landslide.
But a presidential candidate can also have negative coattails. If the presidential primaries leave Republicans fractured, with conservatives staying home because they think their nominee is too liberal, the party's House and Senate candidates could get hurt.
And some Democrats are already worried about their candidates running away from the national ticket, particularly in Southern and Western states, if Hillary Rodham Clinton is the nominee.
Finally, though it probably won't change the overall balance on Capitol Hill, voter dissatisfaction could produce some surprises in congressional primaries that cost at least a few lawmakers their seats even before the November vote.
If there's a trend, it could become evident in Maryland. The state's Feb. 12 primary features a pair of intriguing intraparty battles, one on either side of the bay.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a maverick Republican moderate whose district takes in the entire Eastern Shore and portions of the Baltimore suburbs, is facing a multi-candidate attack from the right. One of his opponents, state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, has the active support of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
In Prince George's County, another veteran of the state's congressional delegation, Democratic Rep. Albert R. Wynn, is in a rematch with Donna Edwards, who came at him from the left and lost by fewer than 2,800 votes. There are some in Washington who think she could unseat him this time.