U.S. voters head to the polls this November for the first national elections since the September 11 terrorist attacks. While economic and local issues traditionally dominate midterm congressional elections, the war on terrorism and possible military action against Iraq could have an impact this year.
The stakes are high this year because both parties have a rare opportunity to seize control of both chambers of Congress.
Democrats control the Senate by a single seat while Republicans hold only a 13-seat edge in the House of Representatives.
Historically, the party that controls the White House loses congressional seats in midterm elections.
The latest opinion polls indicate the public is most concerned about the weakening national economy and Democrats are doing all they can to seize the issue.
New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey coordinates the Democrat's effort to retake the House. She spoke on NBC's Meet the Press program. "They are worried about how they are going to send their kids to college with the loss of dollars," she said. "They are worried about they are going to pay the mortgage on their house. So the economy seems to be the central issue in almost all of these campaigns."
Republicans agree the economy is crucial. But they also hope to ride on the coattails of President Bush's popularity for his handling of the 9-11 attacks and the resulting war on terrorism.
The possibility of military action against Iraq would complicate the U.S. election picture. But Republicans say, at the very least, a congressional debate on Iraq would divert attention away from the domestic issues Democrats want to emphasize.
Virginia Congressman Tom Davis is leading the Republican effort to expand their majority in the House. He also spoke on NBC's Meet the Press. "It will have some influence," he said. "I think one thing it does is it sucks the oxygen out of some of the other issues in the campaign and that tends to halt some of the attacks going back and forth."
For analysts and political pundits, the 2002 campaign is shaping up as difficult to predict. Robert Novak is a syndicated columnist who has covered U.S. elections for decades. "I think it is very hard to call this election," he says. "I do not think either party has succeeded in nationalizing it. The Republicans once were talking about having this as a referendum on the war, but I think they gave that up a long time ago as impractical."
Some experts believe that international affairs could be a much bigger factor in the November elections than has been the case for many years.
"Candidates are very fearful of jumping on any issue because they do not know how it is going to play out because of the economic situation and, more importantly, the international situation," says Ron Faucheux, editor of Campaign and Elections magazine. "They feel at any point there could be another terrorist attack, there could be another major international development in the Middle East that could re-scramble things."
Some analysts predict the Democrats will benefit from the growing concern over the economy and fallout from several corporate fraud scandals that have contributed to the U.S. stock market decline.
But Ron Faucheux says he has detected a new trend in recent weeks that could work against incumbents from both parties. "And when you count up the races, there really is no apparent Democratic trend that has developed over the summer," he notes. "But there is an apparent anti-incumbent, anti-in [in office] trend that is developing pretty rapidly."
At this point, most experts do not see one defining theme or trend that would give either party a major advantage heading into November. University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato says that is a recipe for a continuation of divided government. "This country is divided almost evenly in partisan terms," he says. "I think we will see it again in November in the House, in the Senate, and even in the Governorship races that the Democrats will probably do well in."
In addition to all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 34 of the 100 Senate seats and 36 state governorships are at stake on November 5.