Down to the Wire

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President Bush shakes hands with supporters after speaking at a campaign rally Monday, Nov. 6, 2006, in Bentonville, Ark.

President George W. Bush is hoping he is being underestimated one last time. Promising that his Republicans will hold both the House and the Senate on Tuesday, the President used Air Force One to hopscotch the Sun Belt and Midwest as he closed out a campaign that could determine whether he spends the next two years on offense or defense. In Nebraska on Sunday, Bush grabbed one of the yellow, corncob-shaped hats worn by supporters and held it up for the cameras, delighting a packed rodeo arena decked with "Victory in the Heartland" signs along with hay bales, corn stalks and even a Case tractor. "I'm sure you've heard the same predictions I've heard," the President told them, reprising an applause line he uses in rally after rally. "The prognosticators have already decided the outcome of this election before the good people of Nebraska have voted. But don't worry about it, the same thing happened in 2004."

Don't worry about it! That could be the Republicans' mantra as they head into congressional elections on Tuesday following weeks of negative news stories, discouraging developments in Iraq and polls that suggest a possibly dire outcome for the party — likely the loss of control of the House, and perhaps of the Senate.

On the campaign's closing day, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman sent supporters a cheery memo labeled simply "Momentum," pointing to a variety of independent national polls that suggest a tightening in the G.O.P.'s favor. "Republican enthusiasm is growing," he says, adding graphs and data contending the party is "picking up more swing votes." The memo says the party's turnout machine, the vaunted "72-Hour Program," reached 3 million voters on Saturday alone.

Smoke and mirrors, scoff the Democrats, who believe they are riding a broad and ferocious wave that all but guarantees that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California will be Speaker, and not in a squeaker: "1 Day to Victory!" says the Web page of the Democratic Congressional Committee.

The chairs of the Democrats' House and Senate campaign committees, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, announced a joint closing theme for the party on Monday morning: "Time for a New Direction on Iraq," and urged their voters to send a message rejecting what Emanuel calls "the Bush-Rumsfeld strategy in Iraq." Democrats say they were buoyed over the weekend by an Army Times editorial calling for Rumsfeld's resignation, as well as excerpts from an upcoming Vanity Fair article quoting key neoconservatives expressing pessimism about Iraq. "These pieces got us away from the broken-record syndrome," said a key Democratic operative. "It's the same point we've been making, but gives us a fresh way to drive it."

But over the last two days, polls from the Washington Post/ABC News, the Pew Research Center and Gallup, all have shown a Democratic advantage on the so-called generic ballot — asking voters whether they will pick the Democratic or Republican congressional candidate in their district — narrowing. Democratic leads in key Senate races in Rhode Island and Montana have disappeared, leaving party strategists less optimistic about their chances of winning the Senate. Aside from expected seat pickups in Ohio and Pennsylvania, "everything else is questionable," said one party strategist working on Senate races, with races in Missouri, Montana, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia still fiercely contested. Democrats would need to win four of those five races, and avoid losing Democratic seats in New Jersey and Maryland, to win the Senate. And while Democrats remain confident of winning control of the House, the chances of a huge victory of 35-40 seats, which seemed in sight two weeks ago, now seems unlikely.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was working hard to avoid any overconfidence on a weekend trip to Connecticut, where three key House races are being contested. She repeatedly implored Democratic activists to stay focused on getting out the vote and not assume victory was assured. "If the election were today, we would win, but the election is not today," she said. "We've got two Mount Everests to climb, and they're called Monday and Tuesday." At the events, when supporters came up to say how proud they were about her becoming the first female Speaker, she would quickly reroute the discussion to what they should do to get out the vote.

The White House doesn't have a problem with confidence. On the Tarmac next to Air Force One in Texas Monday morning, chief Bush strategist Karl Rove made a "V" sign for the cameras. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, saying the new polls vindicate the President's consistent optimism, joked: "'Victory' is on the record." Democrats are hoping the bravado will be fleeting.