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VOTING IN A NECK-AND-NECK NATION

Times Staff Writer

The 2006 campaign, one of the nastiest battles and the most expensive ever for control of Congress, came to an end Monday amid indications that months of debate over Iraq, political corruption and the Republican dominance of Washington could produce the highest voter turnout in decades for a midterm election. Even as polls differed on whether voters were ready to hand Democrats a majority in the House or Senate, or both, a series of late surveys consistently showed extremely high levels of interest in the election.

In a national USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday, 68% of adults said they were “absolutely certain” they would vote. That was the highest level of interest Gallup has recorded for a nonpresidential election in the half a century it has measured American opinion.

Likewise, a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed a significantly higher level of interest than in the last two midterm elections -- higher even than in 1994, when Republicans swept Democrats from power in Congress.

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Iraq, the issue that has generated the sharpest conflicts between President Bush and the Democrats, continued to set off sparks on the campaign’s final day.

Leading Democrats urged Americans to demand a new direction on Iraq policy by ousting the GOP majorities in the House and Senate.

“The choice couldn’t be more stark,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters. “Every vote cast for a Democrat is [a vote] for a new, smarter Iraq policy. Every vote cast for a Republican is a vote cast for staying the course.”

Bush, accepting that gauntlet, portrayed success in Iraq as essential to protecting America’s national security and insisted that Democrats had no plan to prevail there.

“Harsh criticism is not a plan for victory,” Bush told an enthusiastic crowd of 5,000 in the Republican stronghold of Pensacola, Fla. “Second-guessing is not a strategy. We have a plan for victory, and part of that plan is to make sure that Republicans control the House and the Senate.”

With all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 Senate seats at stake, as well as 36 governorships, today’s election could mark the sharpest turn in American politics since the Republican landslide in 1994.

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GOP dominance at risk

Since that victory, fueled by a backlash against President Clinton’s first two years in office, Republicans have controlled the House for 12 consecutive years and the Senate for all but about 18 months in Bush’s first term.

Now polls show that voter discontent over Bush’s direction, especially in Iraq, has carried the Democrats within range of capturing at least one chamber of Congress. Republicans took heart from several late surveys showing the GOP mobilizing more of its core supporters and shrinking its deficit among swing voters, much as the party did in the final weekend before its surprising gains in the 2002 election.

“Our party is heading into election day with strong momentum,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said in an e-mail to supporters Monday morning.

Still other polls painted a less-promising picture for the GOP. And most analysts on both sides agreed it would be extremely difficult for Republicans to prevent Democrats from securing the 15-seat gain they need to capture a majority in the House.

In the Senate, Democrats face a tougher climb. They need a gain of six seats to reach a majority, and that will require them to capture at least four of the five most closely contested Republican-held seats -- in Rhode Island, Montana, Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri -- without losing any seats they already hold.

Public opinion polls generally showed close races in all of those contests except Tennessee, where most surveys provided Republican Bob Corker a wider advantage over Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. Late polls showed Democratic challengers maintaining large leads over Republican Sens. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine in Ohio.

A Democratic majority in either chamber could set the stage for two years of intense political conflict. Democrats would be likely to use the subpoena power that comes with majority control to aggressively examine Bush policies in Iraq and at home that they argue Republican lawmakers have failed to monitor.

Big Democratic gains would also disrupt the ambitions of Bush and Karl Rove, his chief political advisor, to build a lasting Republican electoral majority centered on an alliance of economic and social conservatives.

One of the hallmarks of Bush’s presidency has been the passionate emotions he inspires in supporters and opponents, and that pattern shows every sign of generating a large turnout today.

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington, has predicted that voter turnout is likely to exceed the highest level of the last quarter of a century, which was reached in the 1982 election, when Democrats made sweeping gains in the House.

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Getting out the vote

On Monday, both parties worked frantically to convert that interest into votes.

In Missouri, site of the neck-and-neck race between GOP Sen. Jim Talent and Democrat Claire McCaskill, Republicans said they had launched a larger get-out-the-vote drive than they did in the 2004 presidential election, when Bush won the state comfortably.

“It’s a juggernaut right now,” said Paul Sloca, the spokesman for the Missouri GOP.

In Montana, where GOP Sen. Conrad Burns is battling Democrat Jon Tester in a tight race, the party has contacted about 300,000 voters by phone and home visits in little more than a week. That is roughly one-third of the state’s population.

Nationwide, the Republican National Committee estimates its get-out-the-vote operation had contacted more than 29 million voters as of Monday.

Democrats and their allies mounted their own efforts. The Democratic National Committee touted a big increase in party voters participating in early balloting in Tennessee and widespread voter contact efforts in Arizona -- site of three competitive House races -- and in Iowa, where Democrats hope to hold the governorship and seize a vacant Republican House seat.

The AFL-CIO said that on Monday, 50,000 union volunteers were expected to make 2.5 million phone calls, knock on 1 million doors and speak with 1.8 million union members at work sites.

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Democrats cry foul

As each side sought to mobilize its voters, Democrats complained that the GOP had made a barrage of computer-generated telephone calls that, in their view, constituted a last-minute dirty trick.

Democrats said that because the automated calls often started with an offer to share information about a Democratic candidate, some voters thought the candidate had placed the calls. Democrats said the effort was intended to generate anger toward their candidates by pestering voters with multiple calls in unwelcome bursts or late at night.

Attorneys for the House Democratic campaign committee also asserted that the calls violated FCC rules that require the sponsor of automated calls to be identified at the beginning of the message. A spokesman for the House Republican campaign committee acknowledged that it identified itself as the sponsor only at the end of its calls.

But Carl Forti of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee said the party’s calls were within the law, and he denied that the committee phoned voters more than once a day or in the middle of the night. “These calls are meant to inform people, not annoy people,” Forti said. “We’ve been doing phone calls like this for years. We clearly state we’re making the calls at the end.”

Adding to the tension in both parties was the release of seven national surveys since Saturday that sharply diverged in their portraits of the electorate.

In four of those -- released by Fox News, Newsweek, Time and CNN -- Bush’s approval rating ranged between 35% and 38%, and Democrats led by at least 13 percentage points when voters were asked which party they intended to support today.

But in polls released by USA Today/Gallup, ABC/Washington Post and the Pew center, Bush’s approval rating ranged from 38% to 43%, and the Democratic lead in the ballot stood at 4 to 7 percentage points.

That latter group of surveys inspired some anxiety in Democratic circles and cautious optimism among Republicans that they could avoid severe losses. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group in Washington, estimated late last month that individual candidates, the two parties and their allied groups would spend $2.6 billion in the election. That would make this the most expensive midterm election ever, with spending nearly 20% higher than in 2002.

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ronald.brownstein@latimes.com

Times staff writers Janet Hook, Richard Simon, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Viewers guide to election night

Even as Californians are still voting, the election’s trends should be clear from other states. Here’s how political pros will be watching the returns:

The battle for the House

Polls in Indiana close early, and all eyes will be on the fate of three endangered House Republicans there. If Democrats sweep these races, it could be the start of a big night for the party. If Republicans hold their losses to one seat, or keep all three, they’ll be feeling better about the national picture.

Attention will quickly shift to a cluster of Northeastern states -- Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania. Several GOP incumbents, including such party stalwarts as Christopher Shays and Nancy L. Johnson in Connecticut and Thomas M. Reynolds in New York, are at risk. To win the House, Democrats must defeat most of these Republicans.

In New Hampshire, six-term GOP Rep. Charles Bass faces a tough reelection fight. If he loses, it could be a sign of a national Democratic “wave.”

Georgia presents the GOP with one of its few chances to gain a House seat. A Republican win over Democratic Rep. John Barrow would hearten GOP leaders.

As results come in from the Midwest, attention will focus on Ohio. Scandal has plagued the state GOP, creating multiple opportunities in House districts for Democrats. Their scenario for capturing the House depends in part on winning most of these seats, including the one given up by disgraced GOP Rep. Bob Ney.

If House control remains in doubt as polls close in the West, a handful of races in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona will be in the spotlight. The contest for the Albuquerque-area seat held by Republican Heather A. Wilson is a likely bellwether of the national drift.

The battle for the Senate

Maryland and Virginia contests loom large. A loss by GOP Sen. George Allen in Virginia would be a huge step toward a Democratic-controlled Senate. Conversely, if Allen survives and Republican Michael Steele wins in heavily Democratic Maryland, Republican chances of maintaining its Senate majority would dramatically improve.

Democrats hope to have won four of the six seats they need for a Senate majority as votes are counted in the country’s midsection. If that’s the case, Missouri becomes the key battleground. The race between GOP incumbent Jim Talent and Democrat Claire McCaskill has been close from day one, and the result may not be known for hours.

Depending on the Missouri results, Senate control may hinge on Montana. For months, Democrats were confident they would beat GOP incumbent Conrad Burns, but the race has tightened and it could be one of the night’s nail-biters.

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Source: Times reporting. Graphics reporting by Don Frederick


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