The Democratic campaign to take back the Senate looked nearly impossible just a few months ago.
Republicans were poised to assert their claim to five Southern seats held by Democrats who are retiring. They planned to vigorously challenge Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota. And their incumbents appeared powerful.
Only Illinois offered Democrats a glimmer of hope with the retirement of Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.
Suddenly, the picture has changed.
"Democrats are still pushing a rock up a hill, but the hill isn't as steep and the rock isn't as big," said Jennifer Duffy, the Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report, a prominent Washington-based newsletter.
What's changed for Democrats is the surprise retirement announcement from Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), a popular politician who likely would have had a lock on re-election. Also, Republicans are engaged in a bruising July primary fight in Oklahoma to replace retiring Sen. Don Nickles, while Democrats effortlessly fielded a strong candidate, Rep. Brad Carson.
And in Alaska, Democrats are rubbing their hands over the vulnerabilities of Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Since her father, Frank, became governor and appointed her as his replacement, she has had to contend with complaints about nepotism, as well as his general unpopularity in his new role. Democrats have fielded popular former Gov. Tony Knowles.
"A map that looked impossible for us to take back the Senate has moved significantly in our direction," said Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "No one at the beginning of the cycle would say you'd have a chance in Alaska, Oklahoma and Colorado."
The stakes could not be higher for both political parties.
Control of the Senate frequently translates into control of the political agenda in Washington. While the president proposes legislation, it is the Congress that disposes of it, as the saying goes.
In the last three years, the Senate has shifted from Republican to Democratic control and back to the Republicans again with a 51-48 division (with one Independent, Jim Jeffords of Vermont) following the 2002 mid-term elections.
President Bush has been helped immeasurably by GOP control of Congress over the past two years. It has enabled him to push through such crucial items as a Medicare reform bill and has prevented any major congressional investigations of the White House.
Still, Republicans aren't exactly quaking at the possibility of losing control of the Senate.
Dan Allen, chief spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, brushed off the Democrats' newfound bravado, saying the odds of their retaking the Senate remain extremely slim.
"They're basically saying that they have to draw an inside straight to regain the majority," said Allen.
Allen said Republicans have more cash with which to help their candidates than Democrats do and are eager to win over conservative voters of the South.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the committee working to elect Republicans to the Senate, has $12.9 million in the bank compared with about $2.5 million for its Democratic counterpart, according to the most recent filings.
Five Southern states are losing incumbent Democrats to retirement, providing Republicans with opportunity in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. A win in Louisiana would result in the first Republican senator to represent the state since Reconstruction.
Democrats, however, insist they are fielding strong candidates in North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana, while Florida has yet to shake out. Georgia, they acknowledge, will be hard to hold.
The 15 Republican and 19 Democratic seats up for grabs this year likely will play out on a state-by-state basis.
"I don't think there's an overriding national theme," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "The idiosyncrasies of individual races tend to be the important thing."
But he predicted the result of Democrats' newfound advantages and Republicans' ongoing Southern strategy is likely to be a wash.
"The 109th Congress in the United States Senate will look very much like the 108th," Baker said.
Still, the presidential campaign could affect voter turnout in key states such as Missouri and Florida. And no one knows what will happen in South Dakota and Illinois.
In South Dakota, Republicans are mounting a vigorous challenge against Daschle with former Rep. John Thune. Bush is considered likely to carry the state by as much as 20 percentage points, which could boost Thune's candidacy.
And while Democrats were thought to have the edge in Illinois, Republicans say they have an attractive candidate and Democrat Barack Obama, is vulnerable to their painting him as an out-of-step liberal.
"Jack Ryan keeps us in the ballgame in Illinois and ensures that the Democrats can no longer take the state for granted," said Allen.