This year's U.S. Congressional mid-term election is shaping up as one of the closest in recent memory, with control of both the Senate and House of Representatives hanging in the balance. Both major political parties are busy trying to identify the issues that could be decisive and determine what impact, if any, President Bush will have on the outcome.
Following the closest presidential race in modern times two years ago, the 2002 Congressional mid-term battle promises more of the same.
Opposition Democrats control the Senate by a single seat. Republicans have a slightly more comfortable edge in the House, but a Democratic pickup of just six seats would return the chamber to Democratic control for the first time since 1994.
Political analyst Charles Cook says the narrow margins of control in both the House and Senate reflect the political divisions among the American public.
"The last time the U.S. Senate was this close was 1956," he said. "The last time the House of Representatives was this close was 1954. The last time the two chambers together were this close was 1932 when [President] Herbert Hoover was running for re-election. I mean, this really is an historic election, and this split simply reflects where this country is. We are an evenly divided nation in every respect."
Historically, the average gain in mid-term elections for the party that does not control the presidency is 25 House seats and perhaps a few Senate seats. But when a president's popularity tops 60 percent, the opposition party gains an average of only five House seats.
Republicans plan to capitalize on President Bush's high approval ratings for his tough response to the September 11th terrorist attacks.
It is something the president reminds voters about every chance he gets, like this speech on community service in Bridgeport, Connecticut. "And our job is to stand strong, so that our children and our children's children will know the freedoms that we knew growing up. That is what is at stake, my fellow Americans, at least, that is how I view it. And, so long as I am the president, that will be the view of this government."
Republican pollster Ed Goeas says the president's handling of the terrorist attacks has been the defining moment of his presidency so far. He expects Republicans to build on the president's popularity for this year's mid-term elections, and, of course, for the president's own re-election bid in 2004.
"It became a very defining moment for George W. Bush, in terms of his leadership, in terms of the person he was," he said. "Because people liked him, but didn't know much about him at that point of his presidency."
Democrats hope that domestic concerns, including the economy, health care and retirement security will overtake terrorism as the decisive issues come November.
Independent analyst Charles Cook believes the political impact of September 11 will fade with time. "And I just think that every day that we get past September 11, September 11 becomes a little less relevant to the 2002 election, not irrelevant by any stretch of the imagination, but a little less relevant, with a sort of greater focus on domestic problems, and, sort of, day-to-day bread and butter issues. At this point, it really doesn't look like the president is going to be a huge factor, either positively or negatively, in this mid-term election."
But Republican pollster Ed Goeas predicts the after-effects of the terrorist attacks will continue to resonate with voters this November, and that could be an advantage for Republican candidates.
"I think September 11 is underestimated. I think, as an analyst, it is going to be years before we truly know the impact to the psyche of the American public of what September 11 did, and how it affected the American public, among all races, all ages, all genders," he said. "And, I think, to take a more traditional view, that those feeling will abate, I think, is a little bit simplistic, and not truly understanding the gravity of those events."
In addition to all 435 House seats up for election this year, 34 of the 100 Senate seats are also being contested. But analysts expect only six to eight of the Senate races will be truly competitive, and only about 50 of the House races.
The latest poll shows Americans evenly split on Congressional candidates in their home districts. Forty-five-percent support the Republican, while 44 percent support the Democrat.