WASHINGTON -- Less than two weeks before Election Day, Democratic prospects appear to be brightening in campaigns around the country, according to politicians in both parties.
The prolonged debate over the federal budget, in which the Republican administration has been widely seen as defending the interests of the wealthiest taxpayers, has dampened chances for GOP gains in Senate contests, officials in both parties agree.
Instead, Democrats may well hold their 55-45 majority in the Senate. There is even a realistic chance that Democrats could wind up gaining seats, some analysts believe.
Republicans had also hoped to defy history and prevent Democrats from gaining House seats, as the party out of power in the White House normally does in midterm elections. Although most independent analysts had been predicting a Democratic pickup of about five seats, those gains now could go higher.
"The Democrats found a message, thanks to George Bush," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. "George Bush's insistence on tax relief for the wealthy has really given us a message on a silver platter. And for once, we didn't drop it."
Opinion surveys in many states show that Democratic voters are being driven back to Democratic candidates as Election Day nears. While this phenomenon is a familiar one in American politics, the Democrats returning this fall include a surprising number of disaffected moderate-to-conservative voters who cast their lot with Ronald Reagan and the Republicans during the 1980s, according to some pollsters.
Politicians in both parties generally agree that serious political misjudgments by President Bush and top White House aides during the budget fight have tilted the national campaign environment in favor of the Democrats.
"Ronald Reagan over eight years was very credibly able to put the party on the side of working people," said a top strategist at national Republican headquarters in Washington. "Now, in one short week, we're back to strictly being the party of the rich."
For months, Mr. Bush fought unsuccessfully for a capital gains cut, a tax break that almost exclusively benefits upper-income taxpayers. In recent days, he was widely reported to be opposed to Democratic plans to increase the tax rate on those earning more than $200,000 a year and to impose a surtax on millionaires.
A Republican campaign consultant, Linda DiVall, said poll numbers for GOP candidates around the country have been in "a steady decline" since Congress rejected the bipartisan budget agreement Oct. 5.
"It's definitely hurt Republicans more than Democrats," said Ms. DiVall, who is advising Republican candidates in more than a dozen states this fall.
There has even been some spillover into state races not normally affected by national trends. In Ohio, for example, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony J. Celebrezze Jr. has gained ground by attacking his opponent, former Cleveland Mayor George V. Voinovich, as the candidate of the rich after the Republican hosted Mr. Bush at a $25,000-a-couple fund-raiser.
Given the unusual volatility of the electorate this year, party officials caution against reading too much into opinion shifts of the past three weeks.
"We've seen races get very tight in a very short amount of time," said Anita Dunn, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "But I don't think any numbers out there are particularly firm."
States where Democratic Senate candidates have gained in recent days include Oregon, North Carolina, Iowa, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, according to public and private polls.
Earlier this year, many experts projected as much as a three-seat Republican gain in the Senate, which would have put the party within striking distance of regaining control of that body in 1992, when a disproportionate number of Democratic senators are up for re-election.
Charles E. Cook Jr., a leading analyst of congressional races, is scaling back his prediction of Republican gains in the next issue of his political newsletter, to be published later this week. The likeliest outcome is no change in Senate seats, with an equal chance that Democrats could have a net gain or loss of one seat, he said.
In the House, where the Democrats now hold an 83-seat majority, party officials predict a Democratic pickup of no more than five seats.
Mr. Cook says now that Democrats could gain as many as eight seats and added that if a national trend develops, that number could grow. Privately, some Republicans fear their party's losses could exceed 10 seats.
Last night White House aides dropped plans to stage a rally this morning featuring President Bush. The Washington rally had been designed to try to reverse the political damage of the past three weeks.
Mr. Bush is expected to carry his Democrat-bashing theme throughout the nation in an ambitious political travel schedule the next 12 days.
"The president will be out on the campaign trail drawing partisan differences with the big-spending, big-taxing Congress," said Charles Black, chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Today Mr. Bush is scheduled to head out on a five-day political swing through New Mexico, Arizona, California, Hawaii and Oklahoma.