Can the Dems retake?

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Washington is all atwitter over Democrats' chances in November of taking back one or both chambers of Congress. But before Democrats go wafting off into ether (and few have), progressive partisans have some Himalayan-size mountains to scale. Most pundits are focusing on the House as the Democrats' best shot for a takeover. That, of course, requires a pickup of at least 15 seats. Will national polls showing Republicans in big trouble with voters prove right? Or will local issues, incumbency, and new candidates' strengths or weaknesses swing elections?

Before you buy into anyone's predictions, remember two things. First, House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill used to say (and he probably borrowed it from somebody), "All politics is local." Second, I never put much weight in polls taken more than four weeks before an election.

Analysts have many ways of evaluating a party's chances. The best in the bunch—bipartisan analyst Charlie Cook and fellow U.S. News blogger Michael Barone—analyze individual districts.

The Washington Post posited this week, "An 18-month recruitment drive by the Democrats has produced nearly a dozen strong candidates with the potential for unseating House Republicans, but probably not enough to take back control of the House absent a massive anti-incumbent wave this fall, according to House political experts."

True enough, but don't forget this caveat in the form of a question: Is President Bush going to turn out to be such a drag on the ticket that Democrats do much better than expected? At this point, poll numbers show that Bush and Vice President Cheney have developed an unusual new talent not witnessed during their first administration: political self-interment.

There are also several less-reported changes taking place that deserve attention. First, Democrats are raising much more money than in the past. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is positively swamping her admittedly ineffectual Republican opponents in proportions unheard of a decade ago for a Democratic candidate. The Associated Press reports that while running for re-election to the Senate, she's stuffing presidential-size coffers and has amassed almost $20 million in savings. More surprising: Most of that money came from online, small-scale donors.

Republicans have bested Democrats in recent elections among small-scale donors. Can she reverse the trend? Democrat Al Gore raised almost $133 million to then Gov. George W. Bush's total of $193 million in 2000. Sen. John Kerry narrowed the gap, raising $326 million in 2004 to Bush's $367 million. www.opensecrets.org Senator Clinton is a special case–being married to a former president and coming from one of the union's richest states. But if other Democratic congressional candidates start outraising their Republican opponents, watch for an early signal that they could do better than currently anticipated.

Up next: gerrymandering and voter turnout.