For Dems, Opportunity Knocks

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An investigation that has mystified and captivated Washington for almost two years is scheduled to end this week, with the possibility of indictments of top Bush administration officials. The term for the grand jury investigating the CIA leak case expires on Friday, so Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is expected to bring charges in the next few days.

Speculation has centered on I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the Vice President's chief of staff, and Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser. Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia said on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday that he expected administration officials who were indicted would resign, and he thought that would be "appropriate." While nothing will shift attention from an indictment, the White House will move this week toward images that might help Bush's popularity. The President and First Lady Laura Bush will head to Howard University to promote the administration's anti-gang initiative. Bush will speak at a luncheon for the wives of military officers and appear with winners of a national physical fitness award.

With Washington Republicans facing the leak investigation, probes of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist and low poll numbers, next fall's congressional elections could present a major opportunity for Democrats. "The external environment is shaping up to create one of the best Democratic years in a long time," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. Since 1962, when a President's approval ratings have dipped below 50%, his party has lost an average of 43 seats in the House of Representatives. Republicans only have a 28-seat advantage in the House and fewer than 40% of Americans currently approve of Bush. Looking to take advantage, Democrats are in the last few weeks of honing their messages and themes for next year's elections, which they will roll out next month. Top Democratic leaders will meet this week with former Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry and Jim Gerstein, a Democratic strategist. They'll also appear with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to talk about Democratic strategies for dealing with terrorism.

Looking to redefine how Americans see their party, Democrats have sought advice from a number of marketing experts over the last several months, including Jack Trout, a branding expert who has advised several Fortune 500 companies on how they can "position" themselves better, and John Cullinane, who runs a Boston-based strategy group. Steve Bing, the millionaire movie producer who has given millions to Democratic organizations in the last couple of years (and used to date actress Elizabeth Hurley) is also involved, as well as a number of veteran Democratic hands, such as former Al Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway.

The so-called "positive message" from Democrats won't be earth-shattering. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi last week hinted many of the ideas would be a similar to a platform House Democrats rolled out last year that called for making college tuition tax deductible, ensuring health insurance for every American child and reducing dependence on foreign oil. Other items likely to be included are greatly expanded funding for science and technology research, calls for stem cell research and good government proposals that might highlight G.O.P. ethics problems. The value of these Democrat ideas is probably overstated; although the G.O.P.'s 10-ten point Contract with America in 1994 continues to get credit for helping Republicans take control of Congress, most voters hadn't heard of the document when they cast their ballots. What may be more important is how much Democrats succeed in blasting Bush and the Republicans and convincing voters a new party should control Washington. Democrats have already started rolling out two phrases to reinforce that point: "We can do better" and "a culture of cronyism and corruption", which they accuse the G.O.P. of creating.

The key determinate of elections is of course the candidates and the campaigns they run, and two events this week suggest this could be a problem for Democrats in 2006. One of the ways in which the G.O.P. took control of the Senate in 2002 and expanded their majority last year was making sure that their candidates avoided messy primaries that would have forced G.O.P. contenders to attack each other and spend their campaign money in intra-party fights. But in the Ohio Senate race, where incumbent Republican Mike Dewine has low poll numbers, Democrats could have a very contested primary. Two top Senate Democrats, Harry Reid and Charles Schumer, actively encouraged Paul Hackett, an Iraqi war veteran who nearly won in a heavily Republican House district in a special election earlier this year, to enter the Senate race there. Reid and Schumer's wives even called Hackett's. But over the last couple of weeks, after Hackett indicated he would run, Ohio Democratic House Member Sherrod Brown announced he wanted the seat after declining entreaties early in the year. Much of the Democratic establishment in the state is now backing Brown, but Hackett isn't getting out and will announce his entry into the race on Monday. Meanwhile in Maryland, where the incumbent Democratic senator in Maryland is retiring, Democrats could also be in trouble. Michael Steele, the Republican lieutenant governor of the state, is expected to announce his entry into the Senate race on Tuesday after receiving extensive backing from national Republicans. He's running unopposed, giving him almost a year to win Maryland voters over, while Democrats have a number of candidates in the race and won't have a primary until September.