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Previewing the US Elections - Will the Balance of Power Shift?


Americans vote on November 7 in congressional elections that could shift the balance of power in Washington. Opposition Democrats hope to win back control of a least one chamber of Congress for the first time since 1994.

It is a ritual that plays out every two years as mandated by the U.S. Constitution. All 435 members in the House of Representatives are up for election this year as well as 33 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats. Opposition Democrats need to gain 15 House seats and six Senate seats to retake control of both chambers.

The End of Republican Dominance?

Democrats sense the public is ready for change. Republicans are determined to keep their majorities in both the House and Senate. They won control of both chambers from Democrats in 1994. For months, public opinion polls have suggested this appetite for political change may benefit the Democrats in November.

Karlyn Bowman monitors U.S. public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Americans are quite pessimistic today. I think the war in Iraq cast a pall over their feelings in a lot of areas, and so you see pessimism in areas that are not directly related to the war in Iraq, like pessimism on the economy when our economy is actually doing quite well," says Bowman.

Political analysts say public unhappiness over the war in Iraq will be a major factor in this year's election campaign.

Stuart Rothenberg publishes a non-partisan political newsletter in Washington. "This is not a classic issue election. This is a mood election. This is about, do you want change or do you want status quo? And some people want change because of the war in Iraq, some people because of immigration, some people because of scandal. Whatever. But there is not a specific issue like taxes that is going to determine this election," says Rothenberg.

Republicans acknowledge domestic unease over Iraq but insist the United States has no alternative but to stay the course. President Bush continues to try to convince the public that Iraq is the central front in the overall war on terror. "And it is a struggle between extremists and radicals, and people of moderation who want to simply live a peaceful life. And the calling of this country in this century is whether or not we will help the forces of moderation prevail. That is the fundamental question facing the United States of America beyond my presidency," said President Bush.

Iraq and the War on Terror

Democrats are quick to criticize the president's handling of Iraq, even though the party has not adopted a unified position on what it would do about the conflict. Democrats contend that Republicans want to shift the election debate away from Iraq to the larger war on terror because public support for the Iraq effort has eroded.

Senator Hillary Clinton is seeking a second term in New York this year and is considered a likely contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. "They [i.e., Republicans] may not have a plan to complete successfully the mission in Iraq, but they do have a plan to win elections here at home. The stakes are too high to let them take such a low road," says Clinton.

The polls suggest Democrats have an advantage on a range of issues including Iraq, the economy and health care. Norman Ornstein, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute says, "It simply underscores a reality that we have known about for a long time, which is that there will be a very strong wind at the backs of Democrats in this election; that it is going to be, as six year election [congressional elections held in the sixth year of a two-term president] almost always are for incumbent parties, a tough one."

In most polls, the Republicans continue to hold a slight edge on the question of which party would do a better job of keeping Americans safe from terrorism. That issue was a key factor that helped Republicans in the 2002 congressional midterm elections and in President Bush's re-election victory in 2004.

Public opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman says, "Americans seem to be dissatisfied with the performance of the Republicans in office and with the performance of Congress as a whole. But at the same time, they are not convinced that Democrats would do a better job."

The Foley Scandal

The Republican majorities in Congress are also in jeopardy because of a scandal involving former Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida. Foley resigned after it came to light that he had inappropriate e-mail exchanges with young congressional pages. Even if Democrats do win control of one or both houses of Congress, President Bush will remain in the White House for the final two years of his term. Experts say that could set the stage for more partisanship and political gridlock in the next two years.

Political scholar Norman Ornstein says, "Whichever way it goes, the fact is that a House [of Representatives] with a [partisan] margin in the low single digits is not a formula for stable governing or for anything that moves us away from the rancorous, bitter, tribal [i.e., partisan] conflict that has dominated Congress over the last several years."

Ornstein and others predict that Democratic control of one or both houses would lead to numerous congressional investigations instigated by Democrats that could put the Bush administration and its Republican allies on the defensive.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.