WASHINGTON A year before the 2004 elections, the news is grim for Democrats, losers of statehouses in Kentucky and Mississippi in off-year balloting, victims of a wave of retirements by Senate Southerners and petitioners in court hoping to block a Texas House redistricting massacre.
Yet despite the recent Republican run Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory in last month's California recall election included President Bush's poll numbers have sagged lately, and surveys consistently reflect concern about an economy that is finally showing signs of a recovery and the aftermath of the war in Iraq.
''I don't want to overstate the national impact and say that it locks in 2004, it does not,'' Republican Party Chair Ed Gillespie said Wednesday at a news conference held to celebrate Rep. Ernie Fletcher's election as governor of Kentucky and Haley Barbour's gubernatorial win in Mississippi.
''It does show some things that matter, positive policies and an effective ground game. We anticipate a close contest despite the big wins last night and are prepared for a close contest,'' he said.
With less to cheer about, Gillespie's counterpart, Democratic chair Terry McAuliffe, skipped the traditional post-election news conference. In an interview, he called the outcome a ''mixed bag,'' and pointed to down-ballot Democratic victories in the New Jersey state legislature, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Philadelphia mayor's office and a ballot question in New York.
As for the import for 2004, McAuliffe said he believes that both he and Gillespie ''would agree that you shouldn't extrapolate too much out of yesterday's elections.''
Despite gains over the past three years for Republicans, including in key swing states, ''The electorate splits evenly for a second term for the president,'' the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said Wednesday in a report on American attitudes based on more than 4,000 interviews.
The organization added that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, ''Republicans have made significant gains both geographically and demographically. Yet the favorable trends for the GOP are imperiled by rising discontent with national conditions and unease with the situation in Iraq.''
The same survey found that in a race against an unnamed Democratic opponent, Bush would finish in a 42-42 percent tie, with 16 percent undecided. When pitted against the named Democrats challenging him, though, he holds a clear advantage from a high of 53 percent against Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to 49 percent against Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri.
Those numbers gauge not only Bush's popularity. They also reflect the still-unformed nature of the Democratic race, the bruising nominating campaign that has yet to give way to the celebration of next summer's nationally televised convention in Boston.
The presidential election aside, there are 34 Senate elections next year and 435 House seats on the ballot. Another 11 gubernatorial races also will be settled.
Republicans hold a 51-48 majority in the Senate, with one Democratic-leaning independent. The GOP majority in the House is 229-205-1.
To gain a majority, Democrats must take seats currently in Republican hands. Yet their task has been complicated and the Republican potential for modest gains augmented by the departures of Sens. Ernest Hollings in South Carolina; John Edwards in North Carolina, Bob Graham in Florida and Zell Miller in Georgia. Now Democrats must rely on challengers to run races in states where Bush figures to run strongly.
Democrats need to gain 12 seats in the House, an uphill fight in view of the state-by-state redistricting in 2001 that made literally hundreds of seats safe for one party or the other.
Democrats acknowledge recruiting difficulties earlier in the year, in the wake of demoralizing 2002 losses and the early political fallout from the war in Iraq.
But Rep. Bob Matsui of California wrote fellow Democrats recently: ''We feel like we are where we need to be in order to be successful. We have recruited good candidates and continue to break records in fund raising.''
Republicans scoff at that, pointing out that their potentially vulnerable incumbents are piling up large campaign treasuries, and that their challengers are generally outpacing Democratic challengers in fund raising, as well.
But even the most optimistic Democrat has trouble envisioning a victory in 2004 unless a Republican-inspired redistricting plan for Texas is overturned in court.
''It's a brutal and ugly trade-off: seven GOP politicians win, but 3.6 million minority Texans lose,'' Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, argued recently as Democrats challenged the new district map as unconstitutional.
Republicans defend their handiwork, and it likely will be up to the Supreme Court to decide the fate of a plan that as Frost said could put the Democrats in an even deeper hole.
David Espo has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 1980.
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