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Tue, Sept. 17

What if the polls swing toward GOP?

WASHINGTON ­ Pundits were not asking one pivotal question this week as the midterm elections officially got under way: What if the political climate dramatically changes in the GOP's favor?

Two months before Election Day, some things were happening in the political environment that showed how quickly the tide can turn in the rough-and-tumble world of American elections.

Earlier this week, Chevron's announcement of major new oil discovery in the Gulf of Mexico ­ perhaps the biggest in a generation, with a potential yield of 400,000 barrels per day ­ had a positive impact on the oil markets.

Oil and gas prices were already falling significantly as we entered Labor Day weekend, the combined result of reduced fears of supply interruptions in global markets, especially in the Gulf, and a falloff in demand for gas in the United States as the summer-vacation driving season came to a close.

While this alone may not be enough to overcome the electorate's sour mood about a number of vexing issues ­ from the increasing violence in Iraq to the failure of Congress to enact an immigration fix-it bill ­ it chips away at one of the biggest voter complaints.

Still, the environment heading into the general-election season could not be worse for President Bush and the GOP. With the exception of his 55 percent approval score on the war on terrorism, he receives failing grades on just about every other issue ­ from (inexplicably) the economy to Iraq. Voters take an even dimmer view of Congress, with its approval polls falling to the low 30s.

Veteran election forecasters flatly were predicting the Democrats would take back the House and eat into the GOP's 55-seat majority in the Senate.

But interviews with key Democrats who are advising all levels of their party's campaign apparatus and with Republican officials suggest the big "if" that Cook worries about is a wild-card issue or event that could give the GOP a winning hand. Maybe not enough to avoid losses in the House and Senate and among the governorships, but possibly enough to keep both chambers in GOP control.

One of the big ifs has to do with the generic voter-preference polls that have shown Democrats with a strong advantage over Republicans all year.

But even if the generic poll showed a continued Democratic advantage, it may not be enough in a number of GOP districts. The reason: Pollsters acknowledge that generic surveys have long skewed the results against the GOP by anywhere from 6 to 10 points.

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