Kerry flap makes turnout more important: will Dems overcome GOP?

John Kerry's blunder -- too slowly corrected -- has been portrayed as confirming the Republicans' long-standing charge that Democrats are elitist, weak on defense and don't support our troops. It will rile up conservative voters, so Democrats' efforts to counter the GOP turnout campaign will become even more essential to a Democratic victory.

The Republicans have a justifiably legendary turnout machine, with centralized organizing and contacts, microtargeted lists of voters geared to their issue preferences and an aggressive 72-hour final get-out-the-vote push.

Democrats have some new new tools and opportunities to boost voter participation, including a dial-from-home outreach campaign to reach Democratic-leaning voters, using software designed by moveon.org, part of their Call for Change program. In addition, a one-stop website, "Do More Than Vote," links voters to local -- and online --get-out-the-vote campaigns. The alliance's motto: "Devote 5 minutes or 5 dollars to Democratic victory." But will all this be enough for Democrats to overcome the Republican get-out-the-vote drive and shake the confidence of Karl Rove and some other GOP leaders in a Republican victory? Has John Kerry helped the Democrats snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

There are other potential obstacles ahead that make the election experts' predictions of a 20-plus Democratic margin in the House hardly a sure thing. For instance, in the face of reports by Common Cause, NYU's Brennan Center and others, showing that voters in at least a dozen states could have their right to vote potentially blocked by new rules, restrictions and voting machine foul-ups, both the Democratic Party and a coalition of social-justice groups, led by People for the American Way, have organized election protection efforts, but they're still seeking volunteers. They expect to field thousands of volunteers and attorneys to monitor potential abuses and assist voters, but there's no guarantee they'll get the help they need.

The Democrats have a helpline for voters who need help in voting or finding the correct polling place, 1-888-Dem-Vote, while the non-profit election coaltion is providing a 1-866-Ourvote live election assistance helpline, along with the non-partisan mypollingplace.com website that both Republicans and Democrats can use. The GOP, in turn, is recruiting volunteers and staffers to participate in a variety of ways, including potentially challenging voters at the polls in Democratic precincts while serving as poll watchers.

Indeed, a variety of logistical and political factors lead Mike Allen of Time to observe why Republicans believe they may have the last laugh:

Besides Bush's residual popularity in some crucial states and districts, Republican officials say the other reasons they're optimistic are:

1) No Republican is being taken by surprise, unlike many Democrats in 1994. Shortly after Bush's reelection, White House and Republican National Committee officials began working to convince House members that the formidable reelection record for incumbents (since 1996, 97.5 percent) was not something they could take for granted. "What we attempted to do last year," said one of these officials, "was to go out of our way to say to people: 'You face a potential of a race. In order to win as an incumbent, you better have a plan,' " including an intensive focus on voter registration, a message plan that would unfold in phases, and a ground organization that was operating in a measurable, quantifiable way. One official involved in the process said Republican officials deliberately "scared" lawmakers, telling them: "You face a very tough road. You better be ready."

2) Absentee ballot requests and returns, closely tracked by the party, are meeting or exceeding past levels for Republicans in key states and districts. Republican officials say White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and party operatives are scrutinizing this data with the same intensity that they followed metrics like voter registration earlier in the cycle. For at least 68 races, they have been getting reports once a week on the number of voters registered, phone calls completed and doors knocked on. Now, they're getting a second report on the number of absentee ballots requested, absentee ballots returned and early votes cast. "We can look at that data flow and make an assumption about what's going on and plotting it out," a Republican official said.

3) When the national parties, national campaign committees, state "victory" committee accounts and competitive campaigns are added up, Republicans maintained a substantial financial advantage over Democrats at the last filing period. "We didn't look on it as one pot," said one official involved in the process. "We looked upon it as four pots, with synergy available through all four."

4) Republicans say the district-by-district playing field favors them in several structural ways not reflected in national polls. Here is their thinking, starting with statistics from the President's 2004 race against John F. Kerry: "There are 41 districts held by a Democrat that Bush carried, and 14 seats held by Republican that Kerry carried, so we're fighting on better turf. You see it in the open seats, where Bush carried 18 of the Republican open seats and Kerry carried two. So we're fighting on better turf."

5) The get-out-the-vote machine designed by Rove and now-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman in 2001 was dubbed the "72-hour" program, but officials say that's quite a misnomer and that it's really a 17-week or even two-year program. "In Ohio, we are making more phone calls this year than we made two years ago," said an official involved in the process. "Now, that's not the case necessarily in Virginia, which was not a battleground state. You have to build that. In other places, we built that and built it early."

We'll know next week if the Democratic turnout efforts -- and the unpopularity of the Iraq war and the President -- will be enough to secure the party victory in regaining either house of Congress.