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House Of Cards

By Reid Wilson

The American public is none too pleased with the 110th Congress. The latest RealClearPolitics average shows just a quarter of Americans approving of Congress' job performance, while 66% disapprove. As both parties gear up for the 2008 battle for the House, each will have to solve problems of their own before they can begin to feel good about their prospects.

For Republicans, the problem is simple: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. Few Americans believe the situation is in need of anything other than a radical change, as evidenced by President Bush's dismal approval ratings, and the number of people who believe it's time for a change in strategy is swelling to include even Republicans in Congress. But, saddled with the albatross of past support for the war, the party can hardly begin to craft their domestic platform before something changes in the Middle East. "Everything's going to be predicated on Iraq," said pollster Del Ali, of Research 2000.

Add to that the National Republican Congressional Committee, run by Oklahoma Congressman and former Republican National Committee Executive Director Tom Cole, which has just $2 million cash on hand after the end of June, and retains a debt of about $4 million. For a party with an historically large cash edge, playing from behind is made all the more difficult.

But Democrats shouldn't open any bottles of champagne either. While the DCCC holds $19 million in the bank, and with a debt only slightly larger than the NRCC's, the party is in charge, and the perception that little is getting done falls squarely on their shoulders. The anti-war Democratic base is angry with its leadership in Congress - rightly or wrongly so - for failing to make progress in ending the war, and for what it sees as a lack of aggressive action against the President.

Democrats, though, seem to be getting the message. On Thursday, the House voted, largely along party lines, to set a deadline for ending military action in Iraq, and while the vote doesn't approach a veto-proof majority and the Senate is unlikely to muster the 60 votes required for action, at least Democrats can point to some action on Iraq.

Democrats have another challenge on their hands that one might call an embarrassment of riches. The party performed very well in 2006, and because of gains in seats previously thought to be safely Republican, the new majority now has to defend those seats. Not a single Democratic incumbent lost their House seats in 2006, but, as NRCC chairman Cole told reporters last week, "Nobody gets two 2006's in a row." With 61 Democrats occupying seats carried by President Bush in 2004 - and 47 sitting in seats Bush carried twice - Republicans, said Cole, have more chances for offense. Republicans think a strong turnout in what may prove to be a close and polarizing presidential election can only enhance their opportunities in these 61 districts.

Getting those opportunities for offense depends on finding the right candidates to run, and both Democrats and Republicans are furiously setting expectations for their own recruiting while joyously celebrating the other party's every failing. (Hours before the NRCC's Cole sat down with reporters, the DCCC sent out a press release citing ten Republican challengers who had decided against taking on six freshman Democrats and asking whether Craig's List want ads would be placed for Republican candidates in nine other newly Democratic districts. The NRCC responded with a list of challengers taking on Democrats in 14 top races.)

In truth, recruiting is a continuing battle for both parties. Neither has, or will, get all the candidates they want, and when they don't, they will have to choose which what might be called second-tier recruits have what it takes to make them into first-tier challengers. "Trying to assess what a horse looks like in the stable and how they're going to race is pretty tough," Cole admitted.

In fact, even when the committees settle on a choice, as Democrats did with State Representative Jim Craig, the Democratic Leader in the House, in New Hampshire's first district, they don't always get that candidate in November. In an upset in 2006, Craig lost to anti-war activist Carol Shea-Porter, who went on to score another surprise win over Congressman Jeb Bradley. Bradley is one of the NRCC's prime recruits, as he has announced a run at his old seat.

Democrats are not content to play defense, and their recruiting has suggested the party is looking for its own chances to make gains in 2008. Heavy emphasis on candidate recruiting in more suburban and rural areas suggest the party sees its own opportunities in the year to come.

Even with the cream of the crop, Republicans face very long odds in winning back the House. Ali said a Republican win would be "a shock," and money is likely to be nearly as large a factor as Iraq. "It's cheaper to hold the seats you've got rather than try to recapture them," said Cole.

How large a factor President Bush will be remains a matter of debate. By February or March of next year, the Republican Party will have a new face when the Presidential primary shakes out. Democrats effectively weighed down many Republicans with Bush's unpopularity in 2006, and in 2008, says Ali, "the question is, can the Democrats [continue to] tie his face to the [Republican] candidates?"

Cole believes his party will move out from under Bush's shadow. "The Democrats have wasted a lot of bullets at the wrong target," he suggests.

Both parties have opportunities for success: President Bush's unpopularity will allow Democrats to expand the battle field into seats previously considered unwinnable for the party. But the Republican lean of many of those 61 districts President Bush carried and are represented by Democrats suggest the minority party maintains the possibility of a comeback.

Yet both parties face challenges that will not be easily overcome. Democrats must deal with the position of power they were handed by voters last year and try to score some victories over an increasingly hostile White House. Republicans have to rebuild their brand and get out from under the president's shadow. The party, says Ali, is "not even competitive with independents" in polling he's conducted.

Both parties are publicly optimistic about the 2008 race. Yet until both overcome or find a way to circumvent the challenges presented them, the Democrats' assertions that they will expand their majorities and the GOP's hopes of retaking the majority, at this early stage, both remain little more than wishful thinking.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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