SPRINGFIELD, Va. -- The battle for the Senate has moved below the Mason-Dixon line, where Republicans are anxiously fighting off strong Democratic challenges in a conservative region that has long been a GOP stronghold.
Frustration over the war in Iraq and voter discontent with President Bush -- who won every state in the South in both 2000 and 2004 -- have put three Southern states in play, forcing the GOP to pour money and resources into Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri just to hang onto their majority in the Senate.
Democrats need six seats for a majority, and polls released last week showed their candidates with double-digit leads in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Rhode Island, and a smaller lead in Montana. Meanwhile, Republican incumbents were neck and neck with challengers in Missouri, Virginia, and Tennessee.
Republicans say that their strong party organizations, large blocs of conservative voters, and deep understanding of the region will lead them to victory in all three Southern races, leaving them with at least a two-seat margin in the Senate.
Still, frustration with the war and Bush gives Democrats a chance to chip away at the Republican monolith in the South.
"There's only so much the Republicans can do with what's really causing this noose to tighten around their necks, and that's the president," said Steven Smith , a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis.
The GOP had not expected to have to defend its Southern seats, Smith said, and the party is now contending with races where the agenda has been defined by carefully selected Democratic challengers. "Republicans are not used to playing defense well," he said. "They're used to playing offense."
GOP officials note that they have a strong record of squeezing out victories in close races. The party picked up seats in 2004 in South Dakota and Florida and held onto seats in Oklahoma and Alaska, despite late polling showing the Democratic contender in the lead.
But the fact that the Republicans won so many close races in 2004 also underscores the historic tendency for one party to sweep most of the tight contests in any given year, making a Democratic rout a possibility this year, said Thomas Mann , a congressional scholar at the liberal Brookings Institution. Congressional elections in 1980, 1992, 1994, and 2002 also featured a lot of close races, and most of them ended up going the same way -- to Republicans in 1980, 1994, and 2002, and to Democrats in 1992.
In addition, Mann said, since the Senate has almost always changed hands when the control of the House has switched, many analysts believe it is likely to happen next month.
The GOP has watched its prospects in the Senate fall steadily since the campaign season began. Democratic seats in Minnesota, Michigan, and Washington -- once considered potential pickups for the GOP -- now look like longshots at best for the Republican challengers. Among Democratic-held seats, only New Jersey and Maryland remain close.
Meanwhile, two moderate Republican incumbents, Senators Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Mike DeWine of Ohio, are suffering from their mere party association with President Bush and other GOP officials.
In conservative Missouri, incumbent GOP Senator Jim Talent is in a dead heat against State auditor Claire McCaskill , and in Tennessee, Democratic Representative Harold Ford Jr. is in a close race that could make him the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction.
Candidate recruitment has worked to the benefit of the Democrats. Party leaders strong-armed inexperienced primary candidates out of the race to strengthen contenders preferred by the national party.
The tactic, which was widely derided as undemocratic, has nonetheless left the party with a competitive nominee in Virginia and a candidate in Ohio who appears poised for victory. Republican leaders, by contrast, failed in efforts to push Representative Katherine Harris out of the race for her party's Senate nomination in Florida, and Harris now trails badly in a state Republicans once thought they might win.
In Pennsylvania, two-term Republican Senator Rick Santorum -- a hero of the antiabortion movement -- is lagging behind Democrat Bob Casey Jr., who also opposes abortion. Some Democrats had bristled at Casey's abortion stance, but many now acknowledge that with abortion off the table as an issue in Pennsylvania, Democrats have a strong chance of ousting one of the most prominent GOP incumbents.
Republicans in many races still lead in cash-on-hand, giving them an edge in last-minute TV and radio advertising. Further, Republicans say they have a well-organized get-out-the-vote operation that could make a difference in close races. And Republican Thomas Kean Jr. has given the GOP strong hopes of a takeover in New Jersey.
"The map is still a tough one," acknowledged Senator Charles Schumer , chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But "every week it gets better. Every week it gets closer to us taking over the Senate."
Republican struggles are evident in Virginia, a pro-military, reliably Republican state that twice voted for Bush. The state's junior senator, George Allen , was until recently considered a top presidential prospect.
Now, Allen's own job is in danger, with former Navy Secretary James Webb mounting an unexpectedly strong campaign that has attacked both Allen's character, his support for the war, and his ties to Bush. Clad in combat boots to honor his son serving in Iraq, Webb frequently reminds voters of his own service in Vietnam, and denounces the "strategic error" of becoming "an occupying force in Iraq."
Webb is not as well-known or as experienced a campaigner as Allen, and it sometimes shows: At an appearance at Springfield's Greenspring Retirement Center, Webb stood awkwardly by while former Virginia Governor Mark Warner fielded questions on Webb's behalf and elaborated on Webb's answers.
But Webb's criticism of the handling of the war resonated with the voters there. "I'd like to get out as soon as possible," said Henry Poole, 81, an Air Force veteran who said he will vote for Webb. "I think they waged a war that didn't have to be."
Allen has made a hard-core appeal to his base, claiming that Webb would raise their taxes. On Iraq, "We all want our troops home. I want them to come home in victory, not defeat," Allen told Republican activists in Northern Virginia.
Both men have traded accusations of racial or gender insensitivity. Allen has been accused of using racial epithets in his youth, and he was filmed this summer calling a man of Indian descent "macaca" -- a word for monkey. Webb, meanwhile, has had to explain an article he penned in 1979 asserting that "women can't fight," and suggesting that allowing women into the service academies was a "horny woman's dream." Both candidates have used the episodes in negative campaign ads.
On Friday, Allen's campaign released sexually explicit scenes from novels Webb wrote, dumping more political gasoline on an already fiery campaign.
Allen's biggest problem may be demographics. Virginia's northern suburbs have become more Democratic in the past six years -- Bush lost Northern Virginia to Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004 -- leaving Allen with a smaller GOP base. "He's more conservative than Virginia is now," said one GOP lawmaker.
The intensity of the Senate races has turned the campaigns increasingly nasty and often personal, as Republicans try to woo the conservative Southern base.
The GOP has run ads in Tennessee against "Fancy Ford," accusing the Democratic nominee of taking money from the porn industry and cavorting with Playboy bunnies.
In Missouri, Republican ads warn that McCaskill will empower liberals in Congress such as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Massachusetts Democratic Senators Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy .
"One more thing: McCaskill won't just vote with them in the Senate. She'll put them in charge," says the radio ad, paid for by the Republican National Committee. "And when they get to work, society will pay the consequences."
But in a reflection of Bush's declining standing in the South -- where his approval rating dropped as far as 36 percent last summer in a Pew Research Center poll -- McCaskill's ads accuse Talent of being a "rubber stamp" for the president.
(Correction: Because of a graphic artist's errors, the surname of Representative Benjamin Cardin was misspelled in a chart depicting key US Senate races accompanying a Page One story yesterday. Also, Cardin, a Democrat, was wrongly represented as a Republican.)