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How Democrats Can Avoid a Blowout this November

Liberal activists gather at the Lincoln Memorial to participate in the "One Nation Working Together" rally to promote job creation, diversity and tolerance, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010, in Washington. AP

After months of hearing forecasts of a tsunami bearing down on the Democrats this November, there are faint stirrings of a counter-theme: maybe it will be more like a flash flood, or a really, really heavy storm that leaves buildings standing.

You can see it in the national poll numbers, which show something close to parity between the party preferences of registered voters. You can see it in optimism about Senate candidates in California, Washington, Delaware and Nevada; and in the prospects for gubernatorial hopefuls in Ohio, Illinois and California.

But if these upbeat sentiments are to be something more than temporary delusions, there are three key strategic moves Democrats must execute.

First: They must turn out the base. It matters little if there's an even split among registered voters; what matters is who will go to the polls, and surveys so far still show a significant "enthusiasm gap." Republicans can't wait to vote; Democrats seem much more indifferent. Moreover, those core groups of Obama supporters -- blacks, Hispanics, young voters -- are historically far less likely to show up for midterm elections than other constituencies.

This is why Obama was in Madison, Wisconsin last week, pleading with voters to "knock on doors, talk to your neighbors." This is why the impressive organizing machinery of 2008 is being revved up again in an attempt to bridge that enthusiasm gap. The more the electorate for 2010 looks like the electorate from 2008, the better Democrats' chances. (There is one huge caveat, however, to be addressed in a few paragraphs). Special Report: Campaign 2010

Second: Make the election a choice, not a referendum. Democrats know full well that if voters are asked: "Are you happy with what Obama and the congressional Democrats have done?" the answer will be a resounding, "No!" They take some heart however, from the fact that congressional Republicans are even less popular than Democrats, and much less popular than the president. Further, in some states -- Nevada and Delaware, possibly Kentucky -- the nomination of Tea-Party insurgent Republicans has given Democrats a chance to argue that these candidates are simply too extreme, too outside the "mainstream" to be acceptable alternative. You can look for ads to stress this point wherever Democrats believe they can point their opponents' as "out there."

Third: Declare your independence. In many districts where John McCain beat Obama in '08, incumbent Democratic representatives are running ads that boast of their opposition to Democratic initiatives from health care to cap and trade. While it is a vast oversimplification to repeat ex-House Speaker Tip O'Neill's observation that "all politics is local," Democratic candidates in these districts hope that voters who are heavily anti-Obama will see them as an independent voice.

Even if all these stratagies work, Democrats will face an uphill climb. Independents, as Republican strategist David Winston notes, were the key to the GOP takeover of Congress in '94 and the key to the Democratic takeover in '06. Right now, they are leaning heavily toward the GOP, and if Democrats cannot win substantial numbers of them back, that thunderstorm will turn back into a tsunami.

Watch Greenfield's report on the CBS Evening News:

Jeff Greenfield is CBS News' senior political correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here

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