Whatever else you can

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October 27, 2002 2:48 a.m.

Whatever else you can say about this election — the quality of the campaigning or the issues debated — you’re just not going to find one to beat this one in pure nail-biting potential. Race after race for the Senate is either dead-even or within the margin of error or more than close enough for the lagging candidate to make a last minute dash across the finish line. (The best, up-to-date, methodological run-down of all the big races, that I’ve seen, can be found here.) Yet it’s hard to miss a subtle but real shift in the Democrats’ favor across the country. The third and fourth weeks out from election day did not look good at all for the Dems. But the last two weeks before election day seem to be moving in just the opposite direction. And if that’s true, that’s exactly when a party wants to have the wind at its back. Good months in the Spring or Summer are nothing compared to a good week or two at the end of October.

First, as TPM has been saying for sometime, the hapless Doug Forrester is really going down the tubes in New Jersey. The New York Times/CBS News poll has Frank Lautenberg up 48% to Forrester’s 36% among likely voters. Among those most likely to vote, Lautenberg’s lead was narrower, at 48% to 41%. That tracks fairly well with a Mason-Dixon poll released a couple days earlier which showed a 47% to 40%. Admittedly, the straight numbers here don’t make this race look totally beyond Forrester’s reach. But when you look at the context of the race and the trend-line — Lautenberg’s steadily expanding lead and Forrester’s utter lack of issue, charisma, or demographic levers to turn the thing — you realize that it is. He’s toast. Republicans and Mickey are welcome to send in their dissenting emails here. But, believe me, he’s gone.

I hesitate to even discuss the political implications of Paul Wellstone’s tragic death (TPM eulogizes him here). But the conventional wisdom seems to be that if former Vice-President Walter Mondale signs on for the race (and it seems he will) he’ll be very hard for the Republicans to beat. Wellstone was already opening a small, but measurable lead in that race. And the sympathy and grief factor, coupled with Mondale’s elder statesman profile, may be impossible for Coleman to overcome. Who knows if this is how it’ll turn out? And I’d happily lose all these races to have Wellstone back. But that’s what I’m hearing.

One interesting note I hear from a few Republican sources (pure speculation, but intriguing) is that the Wellstone tragedy might actually have some spillover into the Missouri race, where it’s likely to rekindle memories of Mel Carnahan’s death in a very similar tragedy two years ago. Senator Jean Carnahan had apparently picked up some kind of momentum after a debate in which she, I’m told, effectively scolded Talent for questioning her patriotism. I had virtually written this race off, but the late movement may be in her direction.

The last few weeks also weren’t great for South Dakota’s Tim Johnson. He had opened up a very small lead but then fell back a few points as the voter fraud allegations pushed other issues off the campaign radar. Thune may still be up by a point or two. But my sense is that the campaign debate in the state is now moving back to issues which favor Johnson. It’s a very hard call but I’d still say Johnson is the likely winner.

The key races I’m looking at are in New Hampshire, North Carolina and Georgia. These aren’t the closest races. But they’re the ones that are breaking unexpectedly in the stretch — two trending toward the Dems and one trending toward the Republicans.

While people often say that Al Gore lost the presidency in Tennessee or West Virginia, I’ve always thought he really lost it in New Hampshire. Yes, it was grievous to lose his home state and the once impregnably-Democratic West Virginia. But there are a lot of reasons Democrats should have a hard time winning those states. Gore should have been able to win New Hampshire. And he very nearly did. Shaheen is benefiting from the political and demographic changes which have, over the last decade and a half, made New Hampshire into much more winnable territory for Dems. This article in today’s Washington Post says it’s basically dead-even and the momentum at least is with Shaheen.

The Senate really could swing several seats in either direction. But as of today I’d say the good money is on a Democratic hold, with a reasonable chance of their picking up one or perhaps — a big perhaps — even two seats.

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