By CBS News' Allison Davis
Without the lure of a fight for the White House this year, the 2006 midterm elections will serve as a mark of the nation's political mood.
At the midpoint of President Bush's second term, and with only two years until his successor will be known, the hottest, most contested U.S. Senate races dominate the talk of Washington politics.
Democrats are hoping they can regain the majority they lost in 2002 while Republicans look to increase their hold on the Senate for the third consecutive election.
In order for the Democrats to take control of the Senate, they must add six new seats while retaining all 18 Democratic-held seats being contested. This early in the election year, a Democratic majority seems unlikely, but the makeup of the Senate could look quite different come 2007.
Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report predicts "more likely (there will be) a gain of between 2 and 4 seats" for the Democrats.
And while the defining issues of 2006 have yet to take shape, Duffy further contends, "Democrats certainly want a nationalized election and some of the factors that create one are present, but they haven't hit on quite the right message yet."
Republicans maintain they are the ones with the agenda and deserve to continue their legislative course.
The elections are over nine months away but here are some interesting races to watch from now until November:
Fending off accusations of connections to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and with dropping approval numbers, Burns recently began airing a 60-second advertisement defending his record.
Menendez has weak name recognition and faces state politician Tom Kean, Jr., the son of popular former Gov.Tom Kean, Sr., who also served as head of the September 11th Commission.
Kean, Jr., due to his own and his father's reputation, enjoys stronger name recognition and is expected to boast a broader base of support.
Menendez has the current governor's seal of approval but it may take more than that to hold onto the Senate's historic third Hispanic-held seat.
Laffy is the current mayor of Cranston, R.I., a town of about 80,000 people. He has been endorsed by the political action committee Club for Growth, which is airing advertisements supporting Laffy's campaign.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who has traveled to Rhode Island to campaign for Chafee, insists that she is "not even going to entertain the idea that Laffey will win that primary."
Casey, who has said publicly that he would vote in favor of the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, is a conservative Democrat. He is pro-life and against stem cell research.
With two socially conservative candidates running, the question, especially for those in more liberal areas such as Philadelphia, will be whether or not they want to keep Santorum or vote for a Democrat who does not necessarily support their social agenda. The key demographic in this race will be women.
On May 9, the former COO of Ameritrade, Pete Ricketts, and the former state attorney general, Don Stenberg, will face off in the Republican primary. Ricketts is gaining attention because of his ability to self-finance parts of his campaign and run early television ads.
The question that looms in Nebraska, a state where all 75 counties voted for Bush in 2004, is whether Nelson, a Democrat with a Republican-friendly voting record, is blue enough for Democratic supporters but red enough to win the state?
The GOP candidate is Mike McGavick, the former CEO of Safeco Corp., who may not run as strong as earlier Republican possibilities such as Rep. Jennifer Dunn, who refused the race. But, according to the Republicans, McGavick raised just shy of a million dollars in "just about nine weeks."
If that trend holds, Cantwell and Washington State could be in for another long election night.
On the Republican side, one of Vermont's richest residents, Rich Tarrant, is running in the state's September 12 primary. Tarrant is the founder of IDX, a software company which he recently sold to General Electric. "Vermont is Vermont," Sen. Dole said, "Tarrant is interesting, passionate, self-funding."
Leaning left, the 2006 race in Vermont is best filed as a true wildcard.
This year, the overarching political question is whether or not the midterm elections will be won on local issues or become a national referendum. Will President Bush's sagging approval numbers and Republican scandals from Jack Abramoff to the CIA leak case have any effect on state races? Which Republican candidates will align themselves with the president and which will distance themselves from White House talking points? In 2005, Democrats seized on the opportunity to associate every Republican member with the image of corruption; but the big test is how well that message plays in election year races.
And, of course, it's always worth keeping an eye on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The junior senator from New York has thus far escaped a tight re-election fight, allowing her to present a more national message in '06. Clinton attracts crowds of supporters and dissenters at every stop. Unchallenged or not, the potential presidential contender is sure to use her second Senate campaign as a prime opportunity to excite the Democratic base both in New York state and nationwide.