Battle for House Looks Tight as Vote Nears

With just 10 days left before the midterm elections, Republicans are prepared to lose House seats and Democrats expect gains. But will Republicans lose control of the House? That's up in the air.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The campaign ads are turning sharper, often nastier, the appeals for votes more insistent, even desperate. The fall election is 10 days away and opinion polls continue to suggest that the Democrats stand a chance to take control of at least one house in the U.S. Congress. But then the Detroit Tigers were supposed to sweep the Cards in the World Series. Many crucial races appear to be just too close to predict. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Mara, thanks for being with us.

MARA LIASSON: Well, it's good to be here Scott.

SIMON: And we've seen so much speculation that there may be a significant shift of power in Congress after this election, that the Democrats might get to pick the next Speaker of House, for instance. Have these expectations sometimes not been matched by reality?

LIASSON: Well, I think the Democrats do have a chance to pick the next Speaker, but I do think there's a little drinking the Kool-Aid out there. People are looking at these national polls and assuming that the Democrats are about to make huge gains. When you talk to the actual combatants here, they are much more sober. I think the White House is bracing for losses in the House of Representative in the double digits, in the 12 to 18 seat range, but at the Democratic campaign committees, officials there, when they talk about their estimated range for pickups, it's higher than that, but not much higher. And this election is a battle between two forces. On the one hand you've got this anti-Republican, anti-war, anti-Bush wave. On the other hand, you've got all the structural advantages that Republican incumbents have: money, redistricting -that's the drawing of safe district lines - and their proven ability to target and turn out voters. And all of those advantages can help them weather those big anti-incumbent waves and minimize their losses.

SIMON: There have been a number of, if I may, highly entertaining races on board this year, at least for perhaps the people who live outside the states...

LIASSON: Yeah right.

SIMON: ...who cast the votes. I want to ask you specifically this morning about Virginia, because - where James Webb, the Democratic candidate's trying to unseat Republican Senator George Allen. There was lots of attention a few weeks ago to Senator Allen's discovery of his roots, which happened to be Jewish. Now Mr. Webb, who's been a novelist as well as a Navy Secretary, has been asked to explain some things that he wrote in the past that we wouldn't repeat on a family radio program.

LIASSON: No. This race is really extraordinary, and it's almost completely about character, not issues. Now we're hearing a lot about fiction in the Virginia race, and fiction in the sense of novels that Jim Webb, the Democrat, wrote that included some sexually explicit scenes. And yesterday Allen said these novels were disturbing, chauvinistic, sexually exploitative to women. Webb defended himself, saying, look, they're fiction, and he referred people to the steamy lesbian sex scenes in a novel by Republican Lynne Cheney. Now, as you said, you know, Allen who was once considered to be a potential presidential candidate, did hurt his own reelection campaign with his macaca comments, the fumbled response to his revelation about his Jewish heritage and these allegations - which he denied - that he used the N-word repeatedly when he was younger.

But Allen has really regained his footing in this race with the relentless attacks on that article, a nonfiction article, that Webb wrote 27 years ago opposing women in combat. And those attacks have produced the unusual phenomenon in this race that there is no gender gap in Virginia right now. The two candidates are tied among women. Usually Democrats always have an edge with women. So these new attacks on Webb's fiction writings could help Allen widen his lead even more among those all-important suburban married, church-going women who are thought to decide this race. And also, don't forget the gay marriage ruling this week in New Jersey. There is a ballot amendment in Virginia banning gay marriage. Webb's against it. Allen's for it. And Allen has been focusing on that New Jersey ruling to try to energize his base of socially conservative voters.

SIMON: Ten days remain. Mara, what do we look for?

LIASSON: Lots and lots of money is going to be spent. Republicans have more of it. A lot of negative ads, some of them that fly under the radar, maybe only on the radio. This is also when the big voter turnout operations swing into action. The Republicans in particular have won elections with their get out the vote operations in the past, their 72-hour project. So this is the week wherein all of those structural advantages that the Republicans have get brought to bear, and we'll see if they're enough to fend off the Democrats, who've also improved their get out the vote operations in the last two years, and they've raised lots of money, if not as much, as the Republicans.

SIMON: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you, Scott.

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