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Democrats Ready To Take Home The House?

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By CBSNews.com's Joel Roberts

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:

  • Connecticut, CD-4: Rep. Christopher Shays, a popular eight-term Republican, faces a tough challenge from anti-war Democrat Diane Farrell. Shays, a moderate who supports abortion rights and gun control, could be hurt by his vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution in 2002. Farrell, who narrowly lost to Shays two years ago, has opposed the war and favors a pullout of U.S. troops. In a bad sign for Shays, The New York Times, which has endorsed him in his previous races, said it's backing Farrell this time.
  • Ohio, CD-15: Rep. Deborah Pryce, who holds the number four position in the GOP leadership, is one of the highest-ranking members of Congress in jeopardy of being ousted. Her Democratic opponent, county commissioner Mary Jo Killroy, has painted Pryce as a rubber stamp for President Bush and run ads accusing her of being part of the GOP leadership team that failed to protect pages from disgraced Republican congressman Mark Foley. Pryce faces the added burden of running as a Republican in Ohio, a state that's recently seen its GOP governor plead no contest to ethics violations and one of its GOP congressmen plead guilty to corruption charges.
  • New Mexico, CD-1: Rep. Heather Wilson, another popular Republican moderate, is locked in a tight race with Democratic state Attorney General Patricia Madrid in a district that's always elected Republicans since it was established in 1968. Again, the GOP incumbent's backing for the Iraq war has become an issue, while the Democrat is urging an exit plan. Wilson has also been caught up, however peripherally, in the congressional page scandal; she was a member of the House page board from 2001 to 2004, but says she knew nothing about Mark Foley's contacts with pages until recently.