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Same Goal, Altered Path for Democrats

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

As was the case in 2008, Obama will be able to rely on strong, near universal, support from the African-American community, but Democrats are more excited about making further gains in the Latino community that is steadily growing in numbers and relevance.

Over the last three presidential elections, Hispanic voters have grown from 6 percent of the electorate in 2000 to 8 percent in 2004, and 9 percent in 2008. The question isn't whether the president will win a majority of Hispanic voters, but how large his margin will be. Kerry won Hispanics by 9 points in 2004, while Obama carried Hispanics by 36 points in 2008. And the president will rely on Hispanic voters to carry specific swing states such as Nevada and Colorado and potentially Florida.

Even though the gender gap is nothing new, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's recent comments about rape and abortion emboldened Democratic efforts to drive a deeper wedge between the Republican Party and women voters. Obama received 56 percent of the female vote in 2008, compared with 51 percent for Kerry's losing effort in 2004 and 54 percent for Al Gore's defeat in 2000.

Akin's comments also gave Democrats a renewed optimism about holding the closely divided Senate, even though Obama remains a polarizing incumbent and can be an asset or a liability, depending upon the state. While Democratic incumbents and candidates may attempt to ride the incumbent's coattails, other are attempting to pave independent paths to election.

Holding the Senate hinges on a mix of incumbents and challengers who need to distance themselves from the president in such states as Montana, Missouri and Indiana, and candidates in states where the president is expected to run well, such as Nevada, New Mexico and Hawaii.

Due to a quality crop of Senate candidate recruits, including Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Richard Carmona in Arizona and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Democrats are playing offense for GOP-held seats where victories might offset losses elsewhere.

Even though Senate Democrats are defending the class of 2006, which includes 23 Democratic seats and only 10 Republicans seats, the party is seen as at least even money to hold the majority.

On the House side, Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to regain control. But the best they can probably hope for, at this stage in the cycle, is to cut the GOP majority in half. Republicans strengthened their freshman House members through redistricting, and there is no wave building in favor of the Democrats.

In their efforts to make inroads, the Democrats probably need to pick up a few handfuls of seats in California, Illinois, and perhaps New York - states where Obama will do well - while minimizing their losses in more conservative states such as Utah, Oklahoma, Georgia and North Carolina.

Republican Benjamin Harrison, in 1892, was the last incumbent president to run for re-election and see his party gain at least 25 seats. Even then, the Republicans hardly made a dent in the Democrats' majority.

Yet in spite of the sobering news on the economy and the shape of the political landscape, Democrats are cautiously optimistic. Their party isn't particularly popular, but the GOP's image is in worse shape. Voters gave Democrats a 42 percent positive and 40 percent negative rating in the August NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. But that compares with the survey's 36 percent positive and 45 percent negative attitude toward Republicans.

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