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Public partial to Democrats, poll says

Majority surveyed back power shift

WASHINGTON -- In an ominous election-year sign for Republicans, Americans appear to be leaning sharply toward giving Democrats control of Congress, an AP-Ipsos poll indicates. Democrats were favored 49 percent to 36 percent by respondents.

The poll was taken this week as Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to tax evasion, fraud, and corruption charges and agreed to aid a federal investigation of members of Congress and other government officials.

President Bush's job approval remains low -- 40 percent in the AP-Ipsos poll. About as many approve of his handling of Iraq, where violence against Iraqis and US troops has been surging.

''I don't think anyone is hitting the panic button," said Rich Bond, a former Republican National Committee chairman. ''But there is an acute recognition of the grim environment that both parties are operating in."

''If the Democrats had any leadership or any message, they could be poised for a good year," Bond said. ''But in the absence of that, they have not been able to capitalize on Republican woes. Because of the size of the GOP majority, Democrats have to run the board, and I don't see that happening."

The public's unease with Republican leadership in the White House and Congress creates a favorable environment for Democrats, said Democratic consultant Dane Strother.

''The problem is you don't vote for a party; you're voting for a member of Congress. And we're a year away," Strother said.

About a third of respondents, 34 percent, approves of the job Congress is doing, and nearly twice as many, 63 percent, disapprove, according to the poll of 1,001 adults taken Jan. 3-5. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points. Public opinion of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress has been mixed, recent polling suggested.

''Neither one of the parties has done a very good job so far," said Cristal Mills, a political independent from Los Angeles. ''They get away with murder, they get paid to pass certain things. It's the good ol' boy syndrome."

In the Senate, 33 seats will be on the ballot in November, 17 of them currently in Democratic hands, 15 controlled by Republicans, and one held by Senator James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Independent. Democrats now have 44 Senate seats and need to pick up seven to gain a majority, six if Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders replaces Jeffords.

In heavily Democratic Rhode Island, Senator Lincoln D. Chafee, a Republican, is up for reelection. He faces three Democrats and a more conservative Republican, Cranston's mayor, Steven Laffey. Senate Republicans are backing Chafee, a moderate, in the primary because they believe a more conservative party member would lose in the general election.

All 435 House seats are on the ballot this fall, and Democrats need to pick up at least 15 to take control of the House.

Many House races are noncompetitive, but Republican strategists fear that fallout from the Abramoff scandal will give Democrats a fresh opportunity for gains. But they dismiss suggestions that Democrats could take control of the House.

Republicans became the dominant party in the House in the 1994, when the GOP picked up more than 50 House seats held by Democrats. In that midterm election, Democrats won four open seats that previously were held by the GOP.

Carl Forti, a spokesman for the GOP's congressional campaign committee, said about 30 House seats are competitive this year, compared with more than 100 a dozen years ago. Democrats put the competitive number this year closer to 40 or 50.

Some people say they are leaning toward giving Democrats control of Congress because they want to see changes.

''I just don't like the direction our country is going in," said Steve Brown, a political independent from Olympia, Wash. ''I think a balance of power would be beneficial right now."

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