Finding A Winning Tune

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It's the kind of moment Democrats love. Carol Roberts is running for the U.S. House of Representatives against Republican Clay Shaw. She thinks she can win because a Democrat nearly beat Shaw last time and she has the prescription-drug issue in her quiver. So the Palm Beach County commissioner fired up a controversial TV ad last week. Roberts appears with four seniors in the 30-second spot, pitching a phone number that advises seniors how to save money by filling their prescriptions in Canada via the Internet. (The number connects to her campaign and is designed to be a lure.) Shaw's campaign has denounced the ads, saying they're encouraging Floridians to break the law. But so far the phones haven't stopped ringing. Meanwhile, Shaw has been bucked up by ads from a conservative seniors' group partly funded by the pharmaceutical industry. But Roberts says those aren't affecting the race. "People see through that," she chirps. And as for Iraq? "I don't get that many questions about it," she says. "It's probably the third thing they ask."

Roberts' race is emblematic of a basic struggle this fall over the terms of debate. Is the fall election going to be about Saddam Hussein or Social Security, Iraq or Enron? Will it be about Democratic issues like the sluggish economy, corporate governance and prescription drugs? Or will it be about President Bush's leadership, the war on terror, and Iraq? The party that defines the election will probably win the election.

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And what it will win is a lot. The House and the Senate have rarely been so closely divided. A pickup of just one Republican seat in the Senate will wrest control from the Democrats and give the G.O.P. a chance to confirm probably at least one and possibly three Bush Justices to a just as closely divided Supreme Court. If the Democrats gain just six seats in the House, they will end their exile from the Speaker's chair and take back the chamber they controlled for 40 years. House Democrats would have the power to alter the country's direction, particularly in terms of federal spending, since every spending bill must, by constitutional mandate, begin in the House. If those stakes weren't monumental enough, 36 governorships are up this year, including those of the eight most populous states — California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Those seats of power are important because they can shape the outcome of a presidential election.

It's not just the transfer of power that makes this election so interesting. It's also its sheer unpredictability. "While things look O.K. now, I don't know where it's going." a G.O.P. insider tells Time. "Sometime in October it's going to break one way or the other. I feel it in my gut." The number of extraordinarily close races this year is adding to the suspense. In the Senate, races in Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Dakota and Texas could turn on a couple of percentage points.

This year defies the physics of midterm elections. Traditionally, the party out of the White House picks up a few seats; how many it picks up depends on how bad things seem out there. In 1982, for example, the Democrats picked up 26 seats while Ronald Reagan presided over high unemployment. There are exceptions, of course: in 1934 F.D.R. swept an additional nine Democrats into the House and 10 into the Senate. Bill Clinton, instead of losing seats during the throes of impeachment in 1998, gained five House seats because of the blunderbuss attacks of Newt Gingrich's Republicans.

Democrats are struggling to make this a normal off-year election, but it is not shaping up to be a normal year. First, the legacy of Sept. 11 makes Bush remarkably popular. Although his approval levels have sunk from their post-9/11 high, they remain unparalleled for a President going into a midterm election. Second, the Sept. 11 anniversary froze campaigns in place: most pols took their ads off the air and suspended campaigning. That gave the election season a later than usual start. Finally, most Presidents have coattails when they're elected, bringing members of their party along. Bush, who did not win the popular vote, didn't have coattails in 2000, so there are fewer novice Republicans for Democrats to knock off.

Then there's Iraq. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin bets that no Republican "will inject Iraq into the campaign." It's too raw and crass to bring up as an issue. But Bush himself sounded a political note last week: he put Democrats on the spot by insisting that Congress vote on invading Iraq before the U.N. takes action and before adjourning next month. "Democrats waiting for the U.N. to act?" he said. "I can't imagine a member of the United States Senate or House of Representatives saying 'I think I'm going to wait for the United Nations to make a decision.'" In the meantime, the very fact of having Iraq lead the news every night is likely to help his party. If Congress spends the next month debating the war and voting on a resolution in October, that will crowd out the Democrats' staple issues. Most Democratic candidates will probably take a position on Iraq in line with that of their constituents. Erskine Bowles, the former White House chief of staff who is the Democratic nominee for Senate in North Carolina, says, "I'm very supportive of the President on Iraq. This is a very bad man." But even if they agree with the President, Democrats will have a hard time changing the subject to issues closer to their hearts as long as the election mood is suffused with talk of war.

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