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I’m willing to bet that nobody is watching the 2004 presidential race with more intensity and interest than House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). But it’s not for the reason you may think.

The recent slippage in President Bush’s poll numbers has improved the chances that the Democrats will win the White House in November. And that has to scare the dickens out of Pelosi. [IMGCAP(1)]

That’s right. I said that the thought of a Bush defeat probably gives Pelosi nightmares. That’s because the Minority Leader needs Bush to be re-elected to have a serious chance of taking back the House — and making herself Speaker — in 2006.

Now, I know that the California Congresswoman would never admit this on the record. Nor would Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.). In fact, I don’t know a single Democratic officeholder who would say a win by Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) or Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) would hurt Democrats’ chances of retaking Congress in ’06. Instead, all of them would toe the party line by arguing that a Democratic president would boost the party’s prospects across the board and help Democratic House candidates raise money.

And yet, if I could give Pelosi, Matsui and even Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe a shot of sodium pentothal, I’m willing to bet that they would agree with me that a Democratic presidential victory in November would all but guarantee a GOP House majority for the rest of the decade.

The way House districts are drawn (with relatively few competitive seats), the only way for either party to make major gains is as the result of a strong partisan wave. Historically, those waves have tended to develop in midterms, when the only way for voters to send a message to the president has been by voting against his party’s Congressional candidates.

Yes, a rash of Republican retirements next cycle could give Democrats some opportunities, but look how few competitive open seats there are this year. And Democrats would have a hard time cherry-picking enough districts to get to 218 in the House (even if they succeed in picking up a few districts this year in special elections).

By far, the most likely way for that to develop is for voters to blame one of the two parties for something, whether it’s taxes, the budget deficit, a foreign policy mess or inadequate or expensive health care.

Although we are still more than eight months away from the 2004 elections, it is becoming clear that the Republicans are heading for the political version of a migraine headache in 2006 — but only if they continue to control the White House and both houses of Congress after November’s elections.

At that point, President Bush would be a lame duck, and conservatives in the GOP may well be more interested in sending a message to prospective 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls about ideology than they will be in, as Tammy Wynette put it, standing by their man.

Moreover, a growing deficit and buyer’s remorse over a new prescription drug entitlement could anger both anti-government conservatives and balanced budget moderates. Without a Democratic boogeyman to polarize the electorate, Republican base groups might simply stay home, and swing voters might swing at least a bit toward the Democrats.

At the same time, Democrats and liberals could well be energized to send a message to the Bush administration after six years, making 2006 the Democrats’ kickoff to the 2008 presidential contest.

If a Democrat wins the White House later this year, all of that goes out the window.

With Kerry or Edwards in the White House, the 2006 elections would become either a referendum on them or, if things are going well in the country, a status-quo election. Either way, the Republican incumbents would likely be re-elected, thereby maintaining their majority in the House — or even increasing their numbers.

As we’ve seen again and again, it’s very difficult for the party controlling the White House to use a president’s popularity to create a midterm wave that will sweep in new House Members from the president’s party. So even a popular President Kerry or President Edwards would not be likely to help his party win the House in 2006.

Luckily for Pelosi, Bush is still a long way from losing his re-election bid. There is still plenty of time for him to jump-start his campaign. And that’s good news for House Democrats who are hoping to build a majority before 2012.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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