By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- We talk a lot during presidential years about "coattails" (not many coats have tails anymore, but never mind). We mean, of course, whether the candidate at the top of the ticket can pull other candidates into office.
But this year, there's a very different issue that could be decisive: Bush's "reverse coattails."
Every so often, a major party nominates a candidate whose weak showing seems to hurt candidates down the ticket. President Johnson's landslide over Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964 brought 50 new Democrats to the House and Senate; President Carter's defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1980 helped win 12 Senate seats and 37 House seats for the GOP
This year, of course, President Bush is not on the ticket; but his unpopularity has convinced many Democrats that linking their opponent to the president is politically shrewd.
But that's far from the most serious reverse coattail problem Republicans face. In three states -- New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio -- the GOP candidates for governor, the head of the ticket, are running far, far behind their Democratic foes.
In Ohio, Ken Blackwell is 20 to 25 points behind Ted Strickland; in Pennsylvania, Lynn Swann trails Gov. Ed Rendell by 18 to 24 points; and in New York, Eliot Spitzer leads his Republican opponent, John Faso, by 47 points.
The party's Senate fortunes aren't that bad, but they're not pretty. Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum trail by double digits. And in New York, John Spencer is behind Sen. Hillary Clinton by more than 30 points. (Read the latest poll results in key Senate races)
As it happens, all three states have incumbent Republican House members -- or open Republican seats -- that are vulnerable: as many as four in New York; four in Pennsylvania, four in Ohio. With a margin of only 15 seats in the whole House, there's not a lot of margin for the GOP.
In 2002 and 2004, the Republican turnout machine -- the project Bush campaign architect Karl Rove began shaping from day one -- outgunned the Democrats on Election Day. Republican optimists are looking to that turnout machine, and a big money advantage, to hold the House and Senate this time.
But if Republican voters wake up next Tuesday convinced their fortunes at the top of the ticket are doomed, it will be tougher to get them out to the polls to save their "down ballot" candidates.
This is another reason the Republican message in the last week -- warning of what it would mean if the House goes Democratic and veteran liberals Nancy Pelosi, John Conyers, Barney Frank, Charles Rangel assume control -- is aimed squarely at their conservative base. But at the least, the bleak prospects for the top of the ticket in these three states is another reason optimism among Republicans is in short supply.
President Bush's unpopularity has been a drag on his party's prospects going into this year's midterm elections.
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