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Odds stacked against Democrats in 2004

By Greg Botelho
CNN New York

Pelosi faces an uphill struggle to return Democrats control of the House.  

(CNN) -- Leading up to the 2004 election, the presidential race will get the most attention. But the stakes are also high in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and statehouses across the country, where the GOP will try to bolster its slim advantages.

The president's party typically loses Congressional seats in mid-term elections, but that didn't hold true in 2002. With very visible and frequent campaigning by President Bush, Republicans broke the Senate deadlock and strengthened their grasp in the House.

Democrats hope to turn the tide in 2004 by targeting Bush and GOP congressmen on the lackluster economy and what they see as a deteriorating international situation.

But it won't be easy.

"The Democrats are very nervous: They believe that they have a chance to win the White House, but they're not sure if they have the candidate to do it," said CNN political analyst Bill Schneider. "And they're not optimistic about the House or Senate, either."

House Democrats focus on economy

House Democrats, under the leadership of California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, will have a hard time making up the 24-seat difference in the 435-person chamber. (The House has 228 Republicans, 206 Democrats, one independent and one vacant seat.)

"Since President Bush took office, the country has lost 3.2 million jobs, the worst record since President Hoover.

"Job losses are taking a real toll on the financial security of American families. While Democrats are fighting for opportunity, jobs, and economic security for working families, Republicans continue to focus on helping those who need help the least," Pelosi said in an August 2003 statement, giving voice to the Democratic strategy to hammer Bush on unemployment, corporate favoritism and the deficit.

Schneider points out that a relatively small number of seats are typically "in play" in a given election cycle, because most incumbents run again -- and most win. The Rothenberg Political Report notes that 11 of the most vulnerable U.S. representatives -- those who earned less than 51 percent of the vote in 2002 -- are split by party fairly evenly, with six Democrats and five Republicans.

"Without a presidential landslide and without a huge number of Republican retirements, the odds of the Democrats winning the House are slim indeed," says Schneider.

South key to Senate split

Democrats have less ground to make up in the Senate, where they hold 48 positions to the GOP's 51. (Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords is an independent, but votes with the Democrats on the chamber's leadership.)

Fitzgerald announced in April 2003 he would not seek re-election in "heavily Democratic" Illinois, but many other Senate races favor GOP candidates.  

But the Democrats must defend more seats -- 19, compared with the Republicans 15 spots -- in 2004.

The GOP is most vulnerable in Illinois, where Sen. Peter Fitzgerald decided not to run in what he called "a heavily Democratic state," and Alaska, where Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter Lisa as his replacement in the Senate after his 2002 gubernatorial victory.

But the Democrats will have their hands full holding onto seats in Southern states like Georgia and South Carolina -- where incumbent Democrats Zell Miller and Fritz Hollings decided not to seek re-election -- said Schneider.

Two one-time Democratic presidential candidates -- Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida -- also chose not to seek another Senate term.

In December 2003, Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana said he would not seek a fourth term.

The prognosis is not much better for Democrats in the gubernatorial breakdown, one of the party's few bright spots last election cycle.

State house battles

In October 2003, California's Democratic governor, Gray Davis, lost his seat when voters recalled him in a special election and replaced him with actor-turned-GOP politician Arnold Schwarzenegger.

GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski was appointed by her father Frank when he became Alaska's governor.  

A month later, former GOP chair Haley Barbour took over the Mississippi governship by beating incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove. The Republicans picked up another seat in Kentucky, where Rep. Ernie Fletcher bested state Attorney General Ben Chandler to take the place of outgoing Democratic Gov. Paul Patton. (Chandler later got some revenge by winning Fletcher's House seat in a special election.)

Democrats regained their footing later in the month, when Kathleen Babineaux Blanco outlasted Indian immigrant and former Bush administration official Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, taking the governship formerly held by Republican Mike Foster.

While GOP governors now hold five of 11 seats in contention in 2004, two Democrat incumbents -- Washington's Gary Locke and West Virginia's Bob Wise -- will not or cannot run. Rothenberg predicts the Republicans will pick up one or two governorships in 2004.

Presidential race pivotal

Of course, the crown jewel of the 2004 election season remains the presidential campaign.

In fund-raising speeches, President Bush has touted his administration's extensive tax cuts, standards-based education overhauls and hard-line approach in the war on terrorism -- issues that likely will continue to play out if he's elected to another four-year term.

"I came to the office of the presidency to solve problems, instead of passing them on to other presidents or other generations," Bush told GOP supporters in a June 2003 speech. "On issue after issue, this administration has acted on principle, has kept its word and has made progress."

Bush has also said he would push changes in Medicare, restrict medical malpractice suits, change energy policy (including oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and allow faith-based organizations to provide government-funded social services.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts emerged from a crowded Democratic field to become his party's presidential nominee. The four-term senator criticized Bush's positions on Iraq, accused the incumbent of having a serious credibility gap, and stressed differences on other hot-button issues like gay rights, affirmative action and the growing budget deficit.

But Schneider said the Democrats' best chance to win is to focus on "the only thing the voters really care about: jobs, jobs, jobs. ... If the economy takes a real turn for the worse, the Republicans could be in trouble. The presidential race controls everything in the presidential election year," he said. "That tends to spill over to other areas."

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