GOP Seeks to Reposition Itself for Fall Vote

As the midterm elections approach, Republicans seek to shift voters' focus from discontent over the war in Iraq to national security. Analysts say the GOP is vulnerable, and Democrats have a real chance of taking control of the House.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Charlie Cook is founder of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. It tracks elections all over the country. He joined us yesterday morning from Chicago, and we asked him just how well the Republican strategy of focusing on national security seems to be working in Congressional races.

Mr. CHARLIE COOK (Cook Political Report): For the last six weeks, Republicans have had the good fortune or talent or whatever to have the focus on terrorism, national security, and I'd throw in gasoline prices for good measure. And that's helped them some, because back when the focus was almost exclusively on the war in Iraq, say up until mid-August, that was a really bad place for this election to be.

And I guess the way I would put it is, if the focus is on the war in Iraq, Republicans are not going to hold on to the House.

SIMON: What about the old saw that in the end local issues trump national issues and that you have to see each of these Congressional races through that prism?

Mr. COOK: Well, four midterm elections out of five and then in terms of the House and Senate, nine presidential elections out of ten, the old Tip O'Neill adage of all politics is local is absolutely true. But when you look at these wave elections - 1994, the Newt Gingrich-led tidal wave election - you know, all politics was not local.

You know, look at 1986 in the Senate, 1982, 1980; those were elections where all politics was anything but local.

SIMON: Are there any Democratic seats that you see in the House that seem to be in danger?

Mr. COOK: That's the amazing thing, is that a year ago we had four Democratic House seats in the toss-up category and only three Republican. And today we have 18 Republican House seats that are toss-ups and two that are goners. So 20 and zero on the Democratic side. Normally, in an election like this to have a net gain of 15, which is what Democrats need to take a majority in the House, you might need 20 or 22 to net 15. And now I don't think the Democrats are going to lose a single seat in the House.

SIMON: What are some of the races you're going to be watching over the next few weeks?

Mr. COOK: Basically Republican majority is going to hold or fall in four states. The worst state for Republicans right now: Indiana. There's an excellent chance they could lose three seats in a state that's - you know, we normally considered pretty Republican. Ohio. There's a packet of highly vulnerable Republican seats there. That's probably the second most. Third would be Pennsylvania. And the fourth would be Connecticut. And then the rest of them are sort of dogs and cats scattered around the country. But those are the four states where the Republican hopes are going to live or die.

SIMON: The Democrats would need to pick up six seats to have control of the Senate. What races are you watching? What do polls say so far?

Mr. COOK: The fascinating thing is that the focus has been the last week or so on, gosh, there are more Republican seats that are really, really vulnerable than a lot of people expected, with Virginia getting tight and Democrats are, you know, basically even in Tennessee. Who would've thought that?

And so the possibility of Democrats actually beating, taking six Republican seats, it's very real. But the problem that Democrats have is that their own seat in New Jersey, where they've got an appointed senator, Bobby Menendez, is in extreme jeopardy right now. And Democrats, I don't think, ever really counted on, gosh, what if we lost one and we have to pick up seven Republican seats in order to end up with six and get a majority?

So New Jersey is really complicating the picture. If Republicans can pick off New Jersey, wow, Democratic chances of taking the Senate back go to down, you know, I don't know, what, 10 percent?

SIMON: Of course, the election is a month away, and so anything that sounds predictive must be tempered by the fact that we still have the most volatile time of any election cycle to transpire. That being put out of the way, what are you going to be watching for over the next few weeks?

Mr. COOK: I'm going to be watching the news coverage and the public focus. Where's the spotlight? And if the spotlight moves back onto Iraq, the House is going to go. And if the focus sort of remains where it's been for the last six, seven weeks, on terrorism and falling gasoline prices, then I think the majority holds.

SIMON: Charlie Cook, who's a political analyst for the National Journal and founder of the Cook Political Report, speaking from Chicago. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. COOK: Thank you. It was fun.

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