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Are things getting better for Democrats?

1. Democratic strategists are -- quietly -- growing more optimistic about their chances in the fall election, pointing to improving poll numbers in individual House races as well as an uptick in enthusiasm within the Democratic base nationally.

On Monday alone, Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) and Chris Carney (D-Pa.) released poll showing them competitive in major Republican targets. (Carney's poll came in response to an independent survey that showed him behind former U.S. Attorney Tom Marino.)

John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster involved in a a number of contested House races said that he has "three incumbents who after starting their TV [ads] and defining their opponents are now leading when they were behind just a month ago."

Republican operatives have long worried that September could be a very tough month for their side as the Democratic advantage -- at the committee and candidate level -- allowed the other side to define the race to their benefit.

Stepping back from the micro to the macro, Democratic pollsters also argue that there is some evidence of a rallying effect from the Democratic base although the enthusiasm gap -- at least according to Gallup data -- is still very much in place.

"Democratic voters are finally getting energized -- mainly because the focus on the tea party and the possibility that the Republicans could actually win Congress have raised the stakes on the election for Democrats," said Geoff Garin, a senior Democratic pollster.

A look at the polling average of the generic ballot -- a key indicator of which way and how strong the national political winds are blowing -- also suggests some uptick in Democratic performance as well.

Even the most optimistic Democrats acknowledge, however, that what they believe is a slight improvement in the overall playing field should not be taken as a sign that the party won't incur significant losses at the ballot box.

(And, in a Gallup review of recent electoral indicators, the polling organization concluded that the "Republican Party will make significant seat gains.)

Rather, the argument being put forth by party operatives is that the district by district Democratic money edge -- coupled with some incremental improvement in the national environment and the increasing success by candidates to frame the race as a choice rather than a referendum -- has created the possibility that the House can be held.

David Winston, a Republican pollster, acknowledged that the 2010 election "is a choice and has always been a choice" but added that Democrats' have no positive message for voters and added: "They are running from their legislative efforts over the last two years."

The real test of whether Democrats are seeing a temporary blip or have genuine reason for optimism will come between now and mid October as Republicans achieve financial parity on the airwaves. Do the Democratic gains in individual races hold or do the races snap back to where they were in August when Republicans were brimming with confidence about their chances almost everywhere?

2. A new Quinnipiac University poll shows former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon (R) has pulled into a dead heat with state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) in Connecticut's open seat Senate race.

Blumenthal took 49 percent to McMahon's 46 percent in the survey, the latest in a series of Q polls that has shown the Republican closing in on the Democrat. (A poll conducted in mid September gave Blumenthal a six-point edge.)

Blumenthal, a popular attorney general in the Nutmeg State for the last two decades, is still viewed favorably by a majority of voters (51 percent). McMahon has about equal numbers of people viewing her favorably (42 percent) and unfavorably (43 percent).

The new survey comes roughly ten days after President Obama campaigned in the state for Blumenthal; the Q poll shows 45 percent of Connecticut voters approving of the job the President is doing while 51 percent disapprove.

In an obvious attempt to prebut the Q poll, the Blumenthal campaign released numbers of its own late last night that showed their candidate leading McMahon 52 percent to 40 percent. The Blumenthal survey, which was conducted by Al Quinlan, showed his favorable ratings at 55 percent and his unfavorable score at just 29 percent; McMahon carried a 36 percent favorable/44 percent unfavorable rating.

3. A new independent poll shows former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) leading Rep. Paul Hodes (D) in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R).

Ayotte leads Hodes 46 percent to 32 percent among likely voters in the new poll, which was conducted by American Research Group and had a 3.5 percentage point margin of error. Twenty percent of respondents said they were undecided.

One factor contributing to Ayotte's lead is her more than two-to-one advantage over Hodes among voters without a declared party affiliation; Ayotte takes 52 percent among
undeclareds, while Hodes takes 24 percent. She is also winning both men and women, and leads Hodes by seven points in the 2nd district, which Hodes has represented since 2006.

The poll is the first live callers survey to be conducted since Ayotte's narrow primary win over attorney Ovide Lamontagne earlier this month.

Hodes, who had been slamming Ayotte on the airwaves for months before the primary, charges in his latest ad that Ayotte would "double the deficit with more tax cuts for the wealthy and tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas."

Ayotte, meanwhile, has been boosted by an ad blitz by the conservative outside group American Crossroads, which slams Hodes for his support for the economic stimulus and declares, "the guy just can't tell the truth."

Hodes and Ayotte announced Monday that they will face off in three debates between now and election day -- on Oct. 11th, 18th and 28th.

4. Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) has taken a seven-point lead on Rep. Joe Sestak (D) in the open Pennsylvania Senate race, according to the latest Muhlenberg College poll.

The poll, conducted for the Allentown Morning Call, shows President Barack Obama's approval rating in the state has fallen to 37 percent, with 54 percent disapproving. Outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell is doing equally poorly -- at 35 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval.

The issues don't appear to be working in Democrats' favor either. Fifty four percent of voters said they opposed the economic stimulus plan passed by Congress last year while 57 percent opposed the health care bill.

In the governor's race, state Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) leads the race to replace Rendell. Corbett leads Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato (D) by nine points.

The new Muhlenberg data suggests that Sestak and Onorato have their work cut out for them over the final five weeks of the campaign. The national landscape, which favors Republicans, is seeping down to the state level -- even in places where Democrats ran rampant over the past two elections.

5. Vice President Biden stumped in New Hampshire on Monday to stump for Senate nominee Paul Hodes (D) but ended up making news that might cause his party more harm than good.

According to a White House pool report, Biden told about 200 attendees at a private fundraiser for Hodes that the Democratic base should "stop whining."

Biden said that those attending the fundraiser should "remind our base constituency to stop whining and get out there and look at the alternatives. This president has done an incredible job. He's kept his promises."

Biden's remarks were only the latest instance of a senior Democrat taking out his frustration at a Democratic base that has been less than thrilled at Obama's action in office.

In an interview last month, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs blasted what he termed the "professional left." After Democrats slammed Gibbs for the remarks, he later apologized for the statement, which he said had been made "inartfully."

It's unclear whether Biden, who has a well-documented history of putting his foot in his mouth, will receive the same kind of push-back from progressives or whether the left will give him a pass.

In an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow earlier this month, Biden didn't use the word "whining" but struck the same message of urging the Democratic base to examine the alternatives.

"One of the reasons I wanted to be on your show is to tell the progressives out there, you know, get in gear, man," Biden said. "There's a lot at stake here, and our progressive base, you should not stay home. You'd better get energized, because the consequences are serious for the outcome of the things we care most about."

Biden later added: "I think it's time for our base to say, 'Hey man, take a look. This opposition's for real.'"

With Felicia Sonmez and Aaron Blake

By Chris Cillizza  | September 28, 2010; 7:34 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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