WASHINGTON -- Both parties are pumping last-minute cash and other resources into a dwindling number of super-competitive House races. Democrats are looking for breakthroughs in Tuesday's elections, while Republicans emphasize they can keep majority control by just winning half, or even less, of the remaining tight contests.
Some Republican leaders are predicting a gain of seats, even though the president's party traditionally loses them in midterm elections. Democrats, who were upbeat last summer about their chances of recapturing the chamber, are more subdued now in their assessments.
Those races still regarded as tossups by both parties are seeing million-dollar advertising blitzes, sometimes nasty back-and-forth personal attacks, and almost nonstop visits by national political leaders, including President Bush.
There's more money to go around and fewer places to spend it.
''The strategy is to ignore all the ones that are pretty much decided, and to pour every dime into the few that are going to determine who runs the House,'' said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego.
Among the hardest fought are races in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Mississippi where redrawing of congressional boundaries -- part of a once-a-decade procedure reflecting population shifts -- resulted in four races where incumbents are running against other incumbents.
Bush was averaging three states a day late last week, including a visit to Harrisburg, Pa., to campaign for 10-term GOP Rep. George Gekas in his battle against six-term Democratic Rep. Tim Holden. Many analysts view Gekas as one of the more vulnerable GOP incumbents.
Among Democrats, former President Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri have all been busy on the midterm campaign circuit.
Fierce 11th-hour battles were under way in Georgia, Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Maryland, Indiana, Florida, Arizona, Texas and New Hampshire.
But they are the exceptions. Computer-assisted redistricting was kind to incumbents of both parties. While all 435 House seats are up for grabs in Tuesday's election, only about a tenth of the races were ever considered competitive.
Now, there may be as few as 20.
While history might favor the Democrats as the out-of-presidential power party, math favors the Republicans this year. With so few competitive races and Bush's continued high approval ratings, Democrats will have a hard time picking up the seven seats they need to get to the 218 that will allow them to regain the control they lost in 1994.
Privately, Democratic pollsters and some party activists say they expect some Democratic gains, but probably not enough to tip the balance.
Some Republicans are predicting a net GOP pickup. ''If we just split the undecided races -- and I think we'll do better than that -- we end up picking up seats,'' said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Meanwhile, huge sums are being raised and spent in the handful of still-hot races.
In West Virginia, nearly $9 million is being spent in a race between GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Democratic lawyer Jim Humphreys. A race in the Maryland suburbs of Washington between Republican Rep. Constance Morella and Democrat Chris Van Hollen is costing nearly $7 million. At least eight other states have races where spending has exceeded $4 million.
In all, more than $200 million is being raised for the 2002 House races by national Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees. And that doesn't include what interest groups are spending.
''There's more money available because of the lack of truly competitive races,'' said GOP consultant Scott Reed. ''Plus, everyone knows that campaign finance reform kicks into gear the day after the elections. So all this money at the party headquarters has to go out the door.''
The new law, which takes effect Nov. 6, will bar national party committees from raising unlimited donations from businesses, unions and others. Such loosely regulated cash -- known as soft money -- can now be spent on general party activities like get-out-the-vote drives and on issues ads.
Democrats say they also plan to have up to 500 workers in each of about 35 congressional districts they still view as in play to help get voters to the polls and to engage in door-to-door politicking.
''Democrats are fighting in parts of the country where we haven't fought before. We've recruited really good candidates,'' said Jenny Backus, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She said a Democratic victory remains ''tough -- but doable.''
Analysts suggest it remains an uphill battle -- one that requires Democrats to win nearly all of the remaining tossup races.
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.
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