WASHINGTON — We are just a few weeks from election day 2002. Usually, in a midterm election, especially one just after the redistricting of Congress, it becomes apparent how the races are shaping up. Trends set in as candidates begin to pull away in competitive races. But not this year; just the reverse is happening. As Nov. 5 approaches, the number of competitive Senate races seems to be increasing, and election outcomes for some members of the House of Representatives are no less decisive. The 2002 trend lines look like a roller coaster.

Nothing seems normal. That is good for President George W. Bush and his Republican colleagues. If it were normal, it would be disastrous for him and the Republicans. A president’s party traditionally loses seats in his first by-election, and with so many important legislative questions hanging in that narrow balance in Congress, the president needs all the support he can get on Capitol Hill.

Let us first take a look at the Senate, where there are currently 50 Democratic senators, 49 Republicans and one independent. There are 34 seats up for election this year, 14 of them held by Democrats and 20 by Republicans. Five Republican seats have been left open by the retirement of incumbent members, a condition that usually creates a note of uncertainty. In New Hampshire, incumbent Bob Smith lost his primary to Rep. John Sununu, but that probably has improved the Republican Party’s chances of maintaining that seat.

And since the retirement announcement by Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, there is one open Democratic seat that is undefended. Torricelli had lost 30 points in the polls since his “strong reprimand” by the Senate Ethics Committee in July and was sinking fast. The last blow was a televised interview with his accuser from a jail-cell broadcast on network television more than two weeks ago on top of the release of a Justice Department file that said there was “credible evidence of wrongdoing.”

There are such things as safe Senate seats. This year half of the seats that are up for election are considered safe for incumbents. All of the rest are up for grabs, meaning there will be an awful lot of money in play over these next days.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has sat down in Washington with its friends, dishing out millions of dollars of campaign money for the final weeks. They will not be alone. The Democrats will be outspent, but they will be respectably represented in financing their candidates. The money will make a difference; I just have no idea how much of a difference it will make.

And then there is the war. Certainly it is a distraction. But is it more? That is the important question. The polls show that President George W. Bush’s campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is taking attention away from domestic issues, on which he is weak. It is good political strategy for the GOP, but polls indicate it may not swing a tremendous number of votes from Democrats to Republicans.

If you think predicting the 34 Senate races is tough, try the 435 House elections. Very few people have the necessary knowledge to do this. We have to rely on two smart guys to keep track of the House races: Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg. Their predictions are pretty close and keep getting closer as election day nears.

One big advantage in the House is that it has a lot of districts that make for lopsided elections. Well over half of the seats are won by 60 percent or more, and many seats are uncontested. The districts are designed to be either Democratic or Republican when they are established; and once a candidate is elected from a district and puts an individual stamp on it, the partisan label becomes almost indelible. With so many districts to keep track of and things happening in every one of them that could upset the balance, analysis becomes difficult.

Cook and Rothenberg both consider almost 400 of the seats in the 435-member body safe — and about equally divided between the two parties. The rest, about 10 percent of the seats in the nation, are where the election will be decided. Right now, both see the election tilting toward the Republicans by a slim majority similar to the current nine-seat margin. The fog of uncertainty is so thick at the moment that Cook has not yet made his prediction of which party will end up on top. He hasn’t waited this long to make a pick since he started his analysis in 1984.

Here are a few tidbits from recent polls that may be indicative of how voters now feel:

* Bush still enjoys high approval ratings at 67 percent, though the trend continues downward. He is losing one or two points per month.

* Fifty-three percent of the people believe that America is headed on the wrong track.

* The approval rating for Congress has dropped from 57 percent in July to 51 percent now.

* Americans say they are more likely to vote for a Democrat than a Republican by a statistically insignificant 47 to 44 percent margin.

* Bush enjoys more confidence than the congressional Democrats to handle major issues, 54 percent to 38 percent, but Americans believe it would be better to have the checks and balance of a Democratic-controlled Congress.

* Three in five Americans favor using force to get rid of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, although 47 percent oppose the U.S. launching an attack over the opposition of its allies.

* At 51 percent, a slim majority believe the economy is the nation’s biggest problem.

* Americans most worried about the economy are Democrats.

* Terrorism is the most pressing issue to 47 percent of Americans.

* Americans most worried about terrorism are Republicans.

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