RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

With only 18 days left until Election Day, the battle for control of the House and Senate has turned into hand-to-hand combat. NPR has taken a survey of likely voters in the battleground districts that will probably determine which party controls the House next year. We found that while the overall field still tilts toward the GOP, Democrats are closing the gap in some places. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The good news for Democrats is that they've improved their position in 58 of the battleground districts. Back in June, Democratic candidates trailed their Republican opponents in these races by eight points. Now the GOP advantage is only three.

But, says our Republican pollster Glen Bolger, the bad news for Democrats is that there are now more of their seats at risk. The battleground has expanded.

Mr. GLEN BOLGER (Republican Pollster): Having Republicans ahead or tied across 86 districts just gives Republicans a much larger margin for error to win back the House.

LIASSON: Back in June, we chose to look at 70 swing seats. Now there are 96 seats up for grabs and 86 of them are currently held by Democrats.

Stan Greenberg is the Democratic half of our polling team, and he sees a small but silvery lining.

Mr. STAN GREENBERG (Democratic Pollster): Glen is, you know, right that this is still an election that will be very hard for Democrats to hold the House with these numbers. But there is movement here and it's not trivial movement, particularly when you're dealing with life and death - that is, we are dealing with battles that might well be right at the edge of control of the Congress. So many of these races are close. Small movements matter.

LIASSON: Greenberg also points to the 10 battleground seats in our survey that are currently held by Republicans. In June, the Republican advantage in those seats was 16 points. Now it's seven. Glen Bolger.

Mr. BOLGER: The Democrats have cut the deficit a little bit, but the key is they still have an enthusiasm gap problem where the Republican leads by more among the most interested voters, and they also still have a problem where more voters in Democratic districts want a new person and fewer approve of their incumbent member of Congress.

LIASSON: In the Democratically held battleground districts, voters by 47 to 41 say they prefer a new person in Congress over their incumbent. And as for that enthusiasm gap, our likely voters who have a very high interest in the election are more likely to vote Republican. The likely voters with the lowest interest on our scale lean toward the Democrats. Stan Greenberg.

Mr. GREENBERG: The enthusiasm gap is real and there's no doubt that if you lost voters in this sample who are the lowest end of the scale, these voters giving the majority of their support to the Democrats, we would have, you know, a very, very tough election. But there's evidence that more Democrats are coming into this survey and showing more interest in voting, and we've got three weeks to go to see how that plays out.

LIASSON: Among the voters we surveyed, bricklayer Steve Benefield of Hartford, Alabama was typical of this year's fired-up Republican base. He has no intention of voting for incumbent Democrat Bobby Bright and he thinks a Republican Congress will help the country. Like many Republican voters this year, Benefield's top issue is government spending and the deficit.

Mr. STEVE BENEFIELD (Bricklayer): I think the country is on its way of falling on its face, you know. You can't keep going to the cookie jar and it's going to get empty after a while.

LIASSON: Other voters offer a more nuanced view that could help some Democrats survive. Sharon Smith from Melfa, Virginia calls herself a conservative and she simply can't stand President Obama.

Ms. SHARON SMITH: Because all he's done is made the country worse. He promised to bring our men home within a year, he has not done that. He promised that our economics would be better, he has not done that. He's speaking of jobs, there's very few jobs out there.

LIASSON: But Smith is undecided about whether she'll vote for or against her Democratic congressman, Glenn Nye. Nye has been campaigning on his opposition to the policies of President Obama.

Ms. SMITH: You know, Glenn Nye, I don't think that he does agree with the president on everything and that's probably the reason why I feel the way I do about him. He sounds to me like he's more for what people need right now.

LIASSON: Democrat Dan Teters of Chicago is a party loyalist. He says he'll vote for his incumbent, Democrat Debbie Halvorson.

Mr. DAN TETERS: I'm more pleased with what the Democrats have done so far than what the Republicans did the previous eight years.

LIASSON: But, like a lot of voters who wanted change in 2008 and still do, Teters doesn't have a problem with the prospect of Republicans controlling Congress.

Mr. TETERS: I'm a little bit like many people I know, who say let's try something else, what we've got isn't working. Just because one or the other party controls one or both houses doesn't mean that nothing gets done. Just sometimes the agenda changes.

LIASSON: President Obama clearly hopes his whirlwind appearances in the closing weeks of the campaign will bring some of his core voters home, but it's not so clear his message that a Republican Congress would be a disaster is having the desired effect.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: You can view the results of the poll and its methodology on our website, NPR.org.

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