U.S. voters go to the polls in less than nine weeks to elect a new Congress, and the election results will have a huge impact on President Barack Obama's approach to governing during the next two years.
The Obama White House is focused on Iraq and Middle East peace talks this week, but the midterm congressional elections will dominate the U.S. political scene for the next nine weeks, and both major political parties have a lot riding on the outcome.
Republicans are favored to pick up congressional seats this year after losing dozens of seats during the past two election cycles.
In the latest Gallup Poll, voters prefer the Republicans over Democrats by a margin of 51 to 41 percent. That is the largest margin ever in that poll for the Republican Party.
Public-opinion surveys show that voters increasingly disapprove of the job President Barack Obama is doing and have a negative view of the national economy.
Another factor that bodes well for Republicans is that millions of conservatives appear energized to vote this year. That is thanks in large part to the grass roots movement known as the Tea Party and the efforts of conservative commentators like Glenn Beck.
Beck drew a large conservative crowd to Washington recently for what he said was a non-political rally that had strong religious overtones.
"Something beyond imagination is happening," said Beck. "Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God!"
Democrats worry that many of their supporters are apathetic about this year's elections, and the growing political energy on the right could have a huge impact, says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. He appeared on VOA's Encounter program.
"Voters are more angry than usual with incumbents, but that does not necessarily mean that incumbents of both parties are going to be at risk in the general election. Democrats are the ones at risk in the general election because Republicans are simply more energized," said Wasserman.
Numerous polls show Americans are most concerned about the national economy and the high unemployment rate.
Republicans are eager to hold the president responsible for the lack of an economic turnaround, including Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
"Look, it is very, very clear that the economic policies of the Obama administration and this Congress are failing miserably," he said.
Mr. Obama did promise economic improvement when he took office in early 2009. He continues to ask voters for patience.
"I have got confidence in the American economy and most importantly I have got confidence in the American people. We have just got to start working together to get this done," said the president.
Analyst Tom DeFrank of the "New York Daily News" says the president faces a crucial political test between now and the November election.
"I think a reasonable person would suggest that it has not worked out the way he and millions of Americans had hoped it would be, and he is got some explaining to do and he's got some leadership to do," he said.
Republicans need to gain 39 seats to retake control of the House of Representatives and 10 seats to win a majority in the Senate.
Analyst David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report says Republicans already appear within striking distance of a victory in the House.
"Our current outlook is for a Republican gain of at least 35 seats in the House, but it is hard to put a ceiling on it," said Wasserman. "I do not think it is possible for Republicans to gain more than about 60 seats in the House, but keep in mind that they gained 52 seats in 1994. We could see something in that range again. We are on that track."
The 1994 midterm election gave Republicans control of Congress during President Bill Clinton's first term in office and forced him to scale back what had been an ambitious legislative agenda.
But the rise of conservative activists has also caused some turmoil within the Republican Party. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has conceded defeat to political unknown Joe Miller in the Republican primary. Miller was helped by Tea Party activists and also got the endorsement of former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Murkowski is the third U.S. senator to be ousted in a primary this year, following in the footsteps of Utah Republican Bob Bennett and Pennsylvania Democrat Arlen Specter.