Less than two weeks before the crucial midterm congressional elections, all signs are pointing to a big night for the Democrats. But will Republican scandals and growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq be enough to give the Democrats the 15 seats they need to take control of the House for the first time in a dozen years?
Many experts — including leading nonpartisan analysts Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg — say the answer is yes, and suggest a Democratic victory could turn into a romp.
"As of right now, the Democrats would win the House back," says Mark Gersh, Washington director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress. "I'm conservatively predicting a Democratic gain of 20 or so seats, but it conceivably could be more."
Others analysts are more cautious, saying that while it's likely Democrats will pick up seats, the national campaign picture is still too fluid to venture a prediction on whether they'll reach the magic number of 15.
The GOP, for example, has moved quickly to turn the political spotlight on gay marriage because of a New Jersey court ruling that gives same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals.
"I can come up with scenarios where Republicans will win. I can come up with scenarios where Democrats will win. It depends on what issue of political discourse we pivot into after Foley," says Republican pollster David Winston.
"There's no question that there's an anti-Republican mood out there," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman says, but whether that mood translates into individual votes in individual races is unclear.
Still, says Mellman, "The greatest likelihood is that Democrats will take back the House."
History would seem to be on the Democrats' side. The party holding the White House has lost big in five of the last six second-term, midterm elections. Add to that a Republican president with an approval rating in the 30s, an increasingly unpopular war and a spate of corruption and sex scandals, and the GOP's bid to retain their majority becomes formidable.
"Obviously, we'd rather be us than them at this point," says Sarah Feinberg, press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
While unwilling to make a prediction about how many seats Democrats expect to win, Feinberg points out that the map of competitive races, which usually shrinks as a campaign nears its conclusion, "is extending instead of contracting."
"More races are in play now, up to 50 or 60," says Feinberg.
Republicans, while conceding they face a tough fight, are unwilling to concede the election.
"I think were going to maintain our majority in both houses," Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz says. "It's going to be close, with a lot of races within the margin of error, but at the end of the day we maintain our majority and move on."
Still, the numbers for the GOP are discouraging.
With all 435 House seats up in November, a CBS News analysis rates 48 races as competitive — 42 of them involving Republican-held seats versus just five held by Democrats (the one remaining seat is held by retiring Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders). Another 28 races are rated as potentially competitive — 24 Republican seats and four Democratic.
With so few Democratic seats in danger, there's "no pressure on the Democrats to play defense," says Gersh, which means they can go after GOP seats they never expected to have a shot at winning, and force Republicans to defend seats they never expected to have to defend.
Gersh says that while it's unlikely, it's possible the Democrats "may not lose a single seat, which I don't think has ever happened before."
Looking at individual races, experts say a handful of close contests involving well-established Republican incumbents could be a harbinger of how the House swings.
If Republicans lose these races, they could be in for a long night; if they prevail, they may have a chance to hold on. Worth noting is that the Republican candidates have far more money than their Democratic opponents to spend in the waning days of each of the following key races:
"The main issue working for Democrats is the Iraq war," says Gersh." That's what's frankly causing this."
The mounting death toll for U.S. troops, which is already higher in October than in any month this year, "is staggering" for the Republicans, Gersh says.
Beyond Iraq, Democrats like Feinberg portray the campaign as "a referendum on the president and on the Republican Congress that's been a rubber stamp for the president and his failed agenda."
She says it's "increasingly clear that the country is sick and tired of the Republican leadership in Washington and is ready for new leadership in the country."
Republicans, meanwhile, question how far attacks on President Bush will go in deciding local races.
Diaz says voters aren't going to support some " 'Joe Democrat' coming in and attacking the president and avoiding the issues. Most people are going to see that for what is — incredibly gratuitous and not serious."
He also stresses that Republican incumbents, many with years of experience and strong ties to their communities, won't be so easily put out of office.
"Our incumbents — the Nancy Johnsons (Connecticut), the Heather Wilsons (New Mexico), the Rob Simmons (Connecticut), the Jim Gerlachs (Pennsylvania) — these folks know how to win tough races," Diaz says. "This isn't new to them. They have people who are committed to them, people who have a personal investment in the candidates. That makes it tough for Democrat candidates to break in."
Republicans also tout their fundraising advantages in key races — they have more cash on hand than their Democratic opponents in two-thirds of the competitive contests, according to a CBS News analysis — and say their superior get-out-the-vote machinery will spell the difference on Election Day.
"We're confident that our voter base understands the significance of the election and the stark differences between the two parties and will go out on Election Day and support Republican candidates," says Diaz.
President Bush, for his part, continues to voice confidence that the GOP will retain control of both houses and says Democrats are "dancing in the end zone" before scoring a touchdown. He offered this message to Republican candidates at a White House news conference Wednesday: "Keep talking about the security of the United States and keeping taxes low, and you'll come back here."
Democrats, though, remain confident of their chances. Feinberg sees "a huge amount of enthusiasm on our side," something she says is "lacking on the Republican side."
With such high expectations for the Democrats — and such diminished ones for the Republicans — how will Democrats react if they fail to take back the House?
"There will probably be a lot of disappointment," says Mellman, "but, because of incumbency and redistricting, the reality is that the composition of the House of Representatives is increasingly unresponsive to the national mood of the public.
"If the Democrats come up short, the only thing it will tell us is that we have a system that is resistant to change."
By Joel Roberts