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US Democrats Face Opportunities, Challenges This Election Year

Low public approval ratings for President Bush and his Republican allies in Congress present a huge opportunity for opposition Democrats in November's congressional midterm elections. Democrats have plenty of challenges of their own.

Democrats believe this year's congressional elections are their best chance to retake control of one or both chambers of Congress since Republicans won majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives in 1994.

Public concern over Iraq, gas prices and last year's response to Hurricane Katrina has driven down approval ratings for both the president and the Republican-controlled Congress.

"It's not just an overall voter disgust with the status quo," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "There is an unhappiness, clearly, about the war, an unhappiness about the economy. Even though many parts of the economy are good, a lot of Americans just don't feel it."

But for opposition Democrats, political opportunity has also sparked internal debate about what the party stands for and what its strategy should be in the November elections.

Moderate Democrats believe the party must do a better job of convincing the public that Democrats can protect the United States from terrorist attack and lead the war on terror.

Some liberal Democrats believe the party needs to adopt a sharper tone in criticizing the Bush administration's approach to the war on terror and its record on civil liberties.

Senator Russ Feingold is a Democrat from Wisconsin who is considering a run for president in 2008.

"The greatest passion is for us to stand up on the critical post 9/11 issues, from Iraq to the USA Patriot Act to the president violating the law by authorizing illegal domestic wiretapping," he said.

Democratic congressional leaders say they may press for an investigation into how the U.S. got into the war in Iraq should they retake control of either the House or the Senate.

But some Republicans have seized on comments that Democrats might pursue impeachment proceedings against President Bush if they win in November, something House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi tried to discount on NBC television.

"Democrats are not about impeachment," she said. "Democrats are about bringing the country together."

Democrats are also debating whether they need to come up with a comprehensive policy program to offer voters who have questioned what the Democratic Party stands for.

Among those who favor that approach is Jennifer Palmieri. She worked in the Clinton White House and is now with the Center for American Progress, a public policy research organization in Washington, and was a recent guest on VOA's Talk To America program.

"They [Democrats] are, by definition, constantly in a reactive mode," she said. "But it is also true that they could certainly be doing a better job of being bolder, more courageous and more clear on what they are for."

But some analysts believe that the dissatisfaction demonstrated in public opinion polls over the past several months will be enough to fuel Democratic gains in November, possibly resulting in Democrats winning control of one or both chambers of Congress.

"I think that anger is probably sufficient," said Stephen Hess, an expert on Congress and the presidency at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There are a lot of people who talk, well, they have to have an ideology, a common thread and so forth. So if, as the polls are recently showing, if the anger toward the in party, and that is Republicans, who are in the White House and also both chambers of Congress, is sufficient, that might do it without further unification, if you will, in the out party [Democrats]."

Polls show that many Republicans are dispirited about their prospects in November.

Republican strategists believe their best hope of holding their congressional majorities may be to use the threat of a Democratic takeover to motivate conservative voters to get to the polls in November.

But Republicans have their own sources of discord as well. Many Republicans are worried about the situation in Iraq and are also concerned about divisions within the party over immigration and government spending.

In fact, recent public opinion polls suggest that congressional candidates from both major parties will face a gloomy electorate come November.

Former Republican Congressman John Kasich has written a new book entitled, Stand For Something: The Battle For America's Soul. He was a guest on VOA's Press Conference USA.

"I think the biggest problem that the Republicans have had, including the administration, is they really sort of forgot why they came here," he said. "And they came here to transform government, to reduce the size of government, to reduce the tax burden, to simplify the tax code and a whole variety of other things. But over the last few years they have sort of lost their way. On the other side are Democrats, who can't even put together a program as to what they are for. They are more comfortable being against things."

Experts say Democrats appear to be more motivated than Republicans at the moment and that could impact voter turnout to the Democrat's advantage in November.

They also say Democrats may have history on their side. The party that controls the White House and Congress generally loses seats during a president's second term, especially if the incumbent president has a public approval rating below 50 percent.