U.S. voters head to the polls November 5 in congressional elections that could alter the balance of power in Washington. Foreign policy is playing an unusually strong role in this year's campaign.
All 435 seats in the U.S. House will be contested on November 5, though experts say only 20 or so House races are truly competitive.
Republicans have a six seat margin in the House, but their real target this year is regaining the Senate, which the Democrats control by a single seat. 34 of the 100 Senate seats are being contested this year. Seven of those races are considered too close to call and any one of them could determine which party controls the Senate.
Democrats are desperate to retain control of the Senate as a check on President George W. Bush. It would also allow Democrats to highlight issues favorable to them before the next presidential election in 2004.
Republicans believe they have an advantage when they keep voters attention on foreign policy issues like terrorism and Iraq. That is why wherever the president goes to campaign for Republican candidates, he emphasizes the administration's tough stance toward Saddam Hussein.
"We call upon people to come together to disarm this man before he harms the United States or our friends and allies. In the name of peace, in the name of peace, we call upon Saddam to disarm," Mr. Bush said to cheers.
Midterm congressional elections usually concern the state of the economy and local issues and personalities.
Democrats are furiously trying to refocus the election discussion on the weak U.S. economy, with mixed results.
Democrats in Congress were split on giving the president the authority to use military force against Iraq if necessary. And even some Democrats who wound up supporting the president still question what they regard as the administration's unilateralist approach to foreign policy in general.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was interviewed on Fox News Sunday. "This unilateral approach to foreign policy, dictating on a unilateral basis what the United States position is going to be and expecting, really, all these countries, in a very autocratic or authoritarian way, to comply. I do not think we can do that," Mr. Daschle said. Political analyst Charles Cook, a guest on VOA's Encounter program, says voters are torn between two major issues. "You have got this force of the economy, concerns about the economy and jobs and where the country is going domestically, is pulling the election towards Democrats. While concern about foreign policy and terrorism, the impending potential attack on Iraq pulling in the other direction. So you have two powerful forces pulling in opposite directions and right now it is a draw," he explained.
Analyst Stuart Rothenberg publishes an independent political newsletter here in Washington. He says the Democrats may be running out of time as they try to refocus voters on economic issues in the final days of the campaign. "They are aware that the economy is slow, that unemployment is up, consumer confidence is poor. The problem is that so far, the Democrats have been unable to transfer that politically into the elections. Voters still seem to be evaluating the candidates on the basis of local issues, candidate qualities, not sending a message to George W. Bush. And as long as that is the case, then the Republicans have a good chance to hold the House and even a shot to take over the Senate. So, it looks as if the Democrats should be doing better than they really are at this point," he said.
Democrats may have better luck in the 36 races for state governors. Republicans hold most of the governorships being contested this year. Many incumbents around the country are in trouble because the slumping economy has forced some significant cuts in state government programs.
Opinion polls suggest Democrats have a good chance to win governor's races in Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, large states where Republicans have long controlled the State House.