[This article consists of a complex diagram. Please see hardcopy of magazine.] Considering that Vice President Dick Cheney had come a long way to help Florida Congressman Ric Keller raise $250,000 last week, the reception he got in the Sunshine State could have been a bit warmer. After extolling Cheney as "one of the most effective Vice Presidents in the history of the U.S.," Keller launched into all the times he had recently opposed the Bush Administration, including the deal to allow a Dubai company to manage operations at several U.S. ports. And then Keller went right for the punch line: "'Don't be too hasty,'" he claimed the Vice President had pleaded with him. "'Let's go hunting. We'll talk about it.'"
As the campaign season kicks into gear, Republican incumbents are having a hard time figuring out how close they want to be to the White House. Voters have plenty to take out on Republican candidates this year--ethics scandals, the G.O.P.'S failure to curb spending, the government's inept response to Hurricane Katrina, a confusing new prescription-drug program for seniors and, more than anything else, an unpopular President who is fighting an unpopular war. Iraq could make a vulnerability of the Republicans' greatest asset, the security issue.
The midterm contests in a President's second term are almost always treacherous, but this time around, Republicans thought it would be different. The 2006 elections, coming on top of their gains in 2002 and 2004, would make history and perhaps even cement a G.O.P. majority in Congress for a generation. George W. Bush's credibility on national security and the states' aggressive gerrymandering, they believed, had turned the vast majority of districts into fortresses for incumbents. But that's not turning out to be the case. In recent weeks, a startling realization has begun to take hold: if the elections were held today, top strategists of both parties say privately, the Republicans would probably lose the 15 seats they need to keep control of the House of Representatives and could come within a seat or two of losing the Senate as well. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who masterminded the 1994 elections that brought Republicans to power on promises of revolutionizing the way Washington is run, told TIME that his party has so bungled the job of governing that the best campaign slogan for Democrats today could be boiled down to just two words: "Had enough?"
Iraq is driving nearly all the big indicators the wrong way for Republicans. In a TIME poll conducted last week, Bush's job approval rating was mired at 39%; 3 in 5 Americans said the country is headed in the wrong direction, and when those surveyed were given the choice between a generic Republican and a generic Democrat for Congress, the nameless Democrat won, 50% to 41%. The signs suggest an anti-Republican wave is building, says nonpartisan electoral handicapper Stuart Rothenberg, whose Rothenberg Political Report is closely followed in Washington. "The only question is how high, how big, how much force it will have. I think it will be considerable."