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Parties Sprinting to Election Day

With the Republican National Convention spilling into the first week of September, the traditional post-Labor Day start to the fall campaign was delayed a week.

But as Members of Congress return to the Capitol this week for the final legislative push before leaving town to hit the campaign trail, there is little question that election season is now in full swing.

“People are finally beginning to focus,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said. “We’re in the sprint to the finish line.”

Two months before voters go to polls on Nov. 4, Democrats still hold the advantage on a Congressional battleground that remains large but fluid.

The dominant story line of the final leg will undoubtedly be whether House and Senate Democrats — looking to further cement their majorities — are able to maximize the wide financial advantage they enjoy over their GOP counterparts.

The limited funds of the Republican campaign committees on both sides of the Capitol have been a running theme of the 2008 cycle. But in the next two months, both operations will be forced to make excruciating decisions about which races to fund, including leaving incumbents whose defeats appear certain hanging out to dry.

There is no starker example of the financial disparity than in the scope of television advertising time the two House campaign committees have reserved at this point.

The DCCC has reserved $53 million in time across 51 competitive districts around the country. The National Republican Congressional Committee has reserved $18 million in 26 districts.

Freedom’s Watch, the conservative advocacy group that is expected to spend heavily in House and Senate contests in an effort to boost GOP candidates, will serve to supplement the party committee’s independent expenditure operations. The 501(c)(4) cannot coordinate with political parties or directly advocate for or against a candidate’s election, but it is capable of taking unlimited contributions and does not have to disclose its donors.

NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) said last week he has instructed his IE team — which has total control over where to move television ad dollars — to be “brutal” when it comes to making determinations of lost causes.

“If it comes a time to cut off, or you see an opportunity moved, then be brutal,” Cole said he has told the team. “We’re not doing this. We can’t do this any other way. The deal is to save seats, win seats, get the army over the river and onto the high ground as best we can and then see what things look like on the other side of the election. So you gotta be brutal, and they will be.”

Cole has repeatedly stressed to his colleagues this cycle that they can’t count on the party being there with a life preserver in the end.

Traditionally, incumbent retention is the No. 1 priority for campaign committees, followed by open seats and then races against vulnerable incumbents from the opposite party. However, with signs of an anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, D.C., mood emanating from across the country, the open seats may look like a better bet than trying to save some incumbents — who will be defending voting records and their ties to unpopular President Bush.

Indeed, the GOP’s financial woes come as the playing field in the House is even larger than it was in 2006 and as Senate Republicans are defending twice as many seats as Democrats.

In the House, the battleground is made up of roughly 75 competitive races, about a third of which are held by Democrats.

At the outset of the cycle, House Republicans emphasized their plans to go after the more than 60 Democrats who represent districts won by President Bush, but they have failed to expand that effort beyond a small group of vulnerable freshman Democrats swept into Congress in 2006.

“They’re on defense in a cycle when you’d have expected them to be more on offense,” Van Hollen said, noting that about half of the districts where the NRCC has reserved ad time are held by GOP incumbents.

The DCCC plans to announce at least one more round of “Red to Blue” candidates, which are targeted for additional financial and structural help. Van Hollen also said the committee is in a position to downgrade some vulnerable incumbents who are on the committee’s “Frontline” list.

Van Hollen wouldn’t make any predictions about how many seats the party would pick up, adding that he’s seen some estimates that are wildly exaggerated. Still, the party is confident of its position.

“We’re certainly in a place where we think we’ll beat history and pick up seats,” he said.

The downballot impact of the presidential contest between Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is still an unknown quantity.

Cole suggested last week that McCain’s pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, which has invigorated the conservative base, could be helpful to GOP candidates in areas such as the West and Deep South.

But Van Hollen disputed that notion, arguing that swing voters will again be the primary battleground and that Palin is not as appealing to that bloc.

“I don’t think she does anything to help attract the independent vote. In fact, it might be quite the opposite,” he said.

As for the Senate battleground map — where Democrats could conceivably get close to a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority — money will also be the primary factor in deciding the final margin.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) remains the lone Democratic incumbent who appears in jeopardy of losing in November.

Meanwhile, two of the three GOP-held open seats seem to be all but conceded to Democrats at this point.

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) is heavily favored over fellow former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) in the race to succeed retiring Sen. John Warner (R).

Just last week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled its reserved ad time out of New Mexico, where Rep. Tom Udall (D) is facing Rep. Steve Pearce (R) in an open-seat contest.

The race between Rep. Mark Udall (D) and former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) in Colorado seems to be the only open-seat Senate race still being contested at this point, and Democrats are favored to win there.

In mid-August, NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) sent a missive to his colleagues alerting them that he had been forced to cut back the committee’s IE operation — which controls the committee’s spending on TV advertising — because his fellow Senators had not stepped up financially when asked to.

At the end of July, the NRSC had $25.4 million in the bank compared with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s $43 million.

The current top tier of Senate races outside of the open seats includes matchups involving GOP incumbents in Alaska, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon, North Carolina and Mississippi. The Alaska race is in a category all its own as it features Sen. Ted Stevens (R), who is scheduled to go to trial on federal corruption charges in late September.

In New Hampshire, Sen. John Sununu (R) remains the most vulnerable incumbent in the chamber. The NRSC went up on the air in the Granite State last week. However, the state is one of the most expensive of this election cycle because it falls in the Boston media market, and if Sununu isn’t able to close the gap with former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) at some point the GOP will be forced to determine whether its ad dollars might be better spent elsewhere.

North Carolina and Mississippi — terrain that is traditionally not favorable to Democrats in presidential election years — present interesting opportunities, polls show.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) was trailing state Sen. Kay Hagan (D) in one Democratic survey released last week. And in Mississippi, appointed Sen. Roger Wicker (R) will face former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) in a contest where neither candidate will have a party ID next to his name on the November ballot.

For Democrats, their challenge will be to try to move at least one, if not two, second- and third-tier races into the more competitive column. The leading contests they will look to are in Kentucky and Georgia — and Obama’s campaign is expected to contest the latter at the presidential level.

However, the party’s top prize of the cycle would be ousting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is favored to win another term over wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford (D).