Tuesday, May 09, 2006

5 issues redraw playing field for Election 2006

5 issues redraw playing field for Election 2006
By Susan Page, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — All politics is local. Except when it's not.

Republicans have counted on financial advantage, redrawn district lines and the power of parochial issues and constituent services to hold narrow majorities in Congress since they won control 12 years ago. In the election now precisely six months away, however, they'll have to defy history to avoid losing the House of Representatives to Democrats.

A handful of issues is shaping the landscape for competitive contests nationwide, driving down the standing of President Bush and Congress and creating formidable hurdles for the GOP. Democrats are banking that unhappiness over the Iraq war — plus record gas prices, divisions over immigration, snags in Medicare's new prescription-drug benefit and corruption — will make this election a referendum on the president and the direction of the country.

In a sign of Republican travails, Bush's approval rating fell to a record-low 31% in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday.

"At this moment, it doesn't look like the Republican Party can dig out of this hole," veteran Republican pollster Lance Tarrance says.

"You have a mosaic of things coming together, and that creates challenges," says former House speaker Newt Gingrich, architect of the GOP takeover in 1994. He questions, though, whether Democrats led by such liberals as national Chairman Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, and House leader Nancy Pelosi of California can seal the deal with voters.

"It's not guaranteed that the Democrats will be able to sell a contract with Vermont and San Francisco," he says, a reference to the "Contract With America" that Republicans employed in 1994.

During the past three decades, three elections have taken place in a similar environment: One party controlling the White House and Congress, and both branches of government getting low approval ratings. In those elections, the party in power lost 15 House seats in 1978, 34 seats in 1980 and 54 seats in 1994.

Democrats need to pick up 15 seats in November to regain control of the House, six seats for the Senate. Pelosi is confident enough that she's begun discussing the Democrats' agenda for their first week in power, from raising the minimum wage to reinstating deficit controls.

Winning either chamber would enable the opposition party to more aggressively challenge Bush's proposals, scrutinize his appointments and launch investigations.

"I think of it as a 'mood' election or a 'wave' election," says analyst Amy Walter of the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

That's "wave" as in "tidal wave." They happen about once a decade and are almost always bad news for the people in power.

Here's a look at five big issues and how they're likely to influence who wins and loses.

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