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Published: 5/12/2006

Battered Republicans have their work cut out

A POLITICAL cartoon by Pulitizer-Prize winner Mike Luckovich pretty much said it all. It showed an elephant hobbled by scandal, Iraq, record debt, and rising oil prices. He was offering a voter a hundred-dollar rebate "to forget you ever saw any of this." Perfect. Republicans need something to make voters forget a lot by November.

Barring total amnesia, the national GOP may try to minimize midterm damage by claiming things could be worse, or by initiating a well-timed election year stunt to ease voter angst.

Failing that, it's every man for himself. This year every Republican will be an independent, a maverick, a Washington outsider, and a really distant ally of the President.

If nothing works to mitigate public malaise over the status quo, the fear factor is good to go. It is a powerful deterrent to change.

Lucky for the GOP the election is still six months away. If it were held today polls suggest voters are in a "throw the bums out" kind of mood. Their collective frustration is palpable.

They've watched a war many now think was a mistake drag on for more than three years at an enormous cost to the country. They've watched a healthy budget surplus disappear into record deficits.

They've watched Big Business write bills and reap benefits under one-party rule. They watched the chaos after Katrina and homeland security measures never addressed.

They watched the GOP push a prescription drug law that is more pain than panacea. And with stagnant wages, they've watched a disproportionate amount of their shrinking budgets vanish to boost oil profits.

What the Republicans have to overcome in the short term is nothing less than a crisis of confidence among the electorate. They have to convince voters of their ability to fix what they broke. Failing that, playing the "values" card might be worth a shot. Worked in 2004. A religious crusade against gay marriage carried the day and kept many a moral midget in power.

But it might take more than sanctity of marriage on a soapbox to restore trust betrayed. Public approval of George Bush is down to 33 percent.

Former President Bill Clinton's job approval rating - 46 percent - wasn't that low before the last midterm shake-up in 1994.

But the betrayal even many conservatives feel about the man who pledged to return integrity to the White House after the Clinton years is deep.

From the lies and leaks to secret prisons and illegal spying, the Bush Administration has routinely darted over the line of propriety without apology or accountability. Its run of unchecked, unrestricted power is made possible by an ever obliging Congress. The Republican rubber stamp on Capitol Hill is finally being blamed as a big part of the problem.

Only 23 percent of those polled approve of the job Congress is doing, the same rating given before the GOP took its contract out on America in 1994.

Since then, redistricting has mitigated voter discontent and given added job security to incumbents. But that doesn't preclude a rout in 2006. Just makes it tougher.

Democrats are already preparing for the transition from minority to majority with the same smugness of the Gingrich revolutionaries 12 years ago. The long demoralized underdogs are actually exhibiting signs of motivation to stop the madness while history provides a window.

The fact that Democrats appear more eager to fight the good fight than do newly demoralized Republicans bodes poorly for the hobbled elephant. It is clearly trying to save face and control as the barrage of bad news buffets the herd.

But what's a battered pachyderm to do when polls say Americans yearn for the good old days of party balance between branches of government?

A week-old Associated Press-Ipsos poll shows 51 percent of Americans want Democrats rather than Republicans to control Congress. Only 34 percent favor Republican rule.

Of registered voters surveyed, 54 percent said they intended to vote Democrat in the midterms while 39 percent put themselves in the Republican column.

Whether Democrats can pick up 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate to wrest control from the GOP depends on the strength of voter dissatisfaction with the direction in which the nation is headed under President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress.

"The good news is, the Republicans are preparing for the worst and it's only May," said one party consultant.

The bad news is voters are hopping mad and not likely to forget what has happened on the GOP watch in exchange for a chicken in every pot or a cheesy rebate to offset highway robbery at the gas pumps.



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