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Democrats Wary of GOP Bounce

No one’s panicking, at least not yet. But Congressional Democrats say that over the next two weeks they will be watching nervously to see whether their presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), can retake what was once a comfortable lead over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in their battle for the White House.

A spate of new polls either give McCain a narrow boost over Obama or put them in a dead heat on the heels of last week’s Republican National Convention. McCain’s bump isn’t unexpected, but it is the first time he has achieved more favorable marks than Obama since the Illinois Democrat assumed the status as his party’s presumptive nominee in June.

According to’s national polling averages, Obama’s lead over McCain has evaporated, with McCain on top by 2.8 points. Obama was up on average by as much as 10 points on the heels of his nominating convention held Aug. 25-28. The numbers are humbling for Democrats, who had momentum for months and have viewed 2008 as their best chance to win control of the White House since Bill Clinton lived there.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “Anyone who didn’t expect to see a bounce in their polls [after the conventions] was kidding themselves.”

“National polls continue to remain close until the end,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) added. “The key in the end will be the polls in the battleground states. That’s where the election is going to be decided.”

“This is a bounce from the convention,” offered Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). “It’s a nice bounce, but it’s not going to last. We need to work very hard and we intend to do that, but we shouldn’t panic.”

The public pronouncements of confidence notwithstanding, Democrats are watching the numbers and say they aren’t just standing by. On Monday, House Democrats hatched a massive anti-GOP messaging war to paint Republicans as ineffective and unaccomplished leaders with a record of failure. Senate Democrats are kick-starting a strategy to link to McCain’s candidacy to the GOP’s obstruction of legislation and what they say are President Bush’s policy blunders.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) initiated the offensive in earnest on Tuesday, tarring McCain as responsible for his party’s indifference toward bipartisanship this year and attempting to poke holes in his message of change.

“How can he lead the country when he can’t even lead his own caucus to do the right thing?” asked a senior Democratic Senate aide, speaking about the party’s offensive against the veteran Republican lawmaker.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he believed the presidential race “is going to open up again” once the glitter of the Republican convention has waned and the novelty over McCain’s surprise vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has subsided. He said questions about whether Democrats are in panic mode over the presidential contest should be reserved “for a month from now.”

“Palin has given McCain’s ticket some adrenaline, it’s quite clear,” Dorgan said. “But she’s not very well vetted. It will settle down. And the question will be about which candidate represents real change.”

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) agreed, saying that while Republicans have presented Palin well, “when you peel back the package and see what’s underneath, people’s opinions are going to change.”

Congressional Democrats say they hope to spend the coming weeks helping paint the contrast between Obama and McCain by helping their Illinois colleague tell his story, while simultaneously trying to discredit McCain’s argument that he is the “maverick” candidate. Dorgan took a step in that direction Tuesday when he said that McCain trying to embrace an argument for change after three decades in Congress is “hardly credible.”

Menendez offered a similar assessment, saying: “At some point, the hypocrisy will become rather transparent. Our mission is to drive that reality, and say, ‘Look, the emperor has no clothes.’”

But Congressional Republicans say they aren’t worried about being trumped, at least with the latest polling snapshot giving them the first wave of momentum they’ve enjoyed since the presidential cycle began nearly two years ago. Even heading into the GOP convention, most Republicans acknowledged they were largely uninspired and feared an uphill climb against a newly energized Democratic Party.

“They were expecting a cakewalk,” said a senior Republican Senate aide. “Now they are finding that’s not the case. Instead, they’ve got a fight on their hands.”

Republicans are particularly buoyed by polling that shows new enthusiasm among voters for the GOP ticket, a major shift from just a few weeks ago when Democrats had a virtual lock on voter excitement. Republican lawmakers acknowledge that those numbers will likely level off as the November elections near but still say they sense a critical shift in their standing with the public.

“Republicans went in to the convention united, but they went out united and with enthusiasm,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said. “One has to wait another week to get a snapshot to know what the true effects were of the convention. Certainly, momentum is with the McCain campaign. The question is, can he hold on to it, and if can do it, he will win the next election.”

Even Sen. Gordon Smith (Ore.), a heavily targeted GOP incumbent this cycle, said he saw new life for his party in November. Smith, a moderate who has even run ads featuring his work with Obama, attributes much of the turnaround to Palin, who represents what he called “a genuineness that is contagious.”

“She’s reattached the Republican Party to its moorings,” he said.