WASHINGTON An unrelenting sour mood among voters has steadily eroded support for President Barack Obama's Democrats, putting the party's grip on Congress at growing risk two months before the November 2 election.
Worries about the economy and plummeting confidence in Obama have Democrats on the defensive in dozens of once-safe races, sparking new predictions of a 1994-style sweep that would restore Republicans to power in the House of Representatives and even the Senate.
"A big wave for Republicans is almost guaranteed in November barring some cataclysmic event," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who on Thursday increased his projected Republican gains in the House to 47 seats -- enough to win a majority.
"The political climate for Democrats has deteriorated badly over the summer," Sabato said. "The rotten economy and President Obama's failure to turn it around is killing Democrats."
Obama and Democrats got little help on Friday from the latest jobless report, which showed the unemployment rate inching up to 9.6 percent after employment fell for the third consecutive month.
Democrats entered the summer hoping an improving economy would help their political prospects, but the stubbornly high national unemployment rate and fears of a double-dip recession have sparked wide public anxiety.
"The economy is issue No. 1 through No. 139, and most people remain very pessimistic," said Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown. "It is hard to see what happens between now and Election Day to change the public perception of what is going on with the economy."
The political climate looks worse for Democrats so far than in 1994, two years into Democratic President Bill Clinton's first term, when Republicans recaptured the House by picking up 52 seats.
This year, Republicans must gain 39 House seats and 10 Senate seats to reclaim majorities in each chamber and slam the brakes on Obama's legislative agenda, with a switch of power in the House considered increasingly likely and in the Senate a growing possibility.
MORE SEATS AT RISK
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report is monitoring 120 potentially competitive House races, the biggest field in years, with 102 held by Democrats. In 2006, it monitored 75 races.
It lists 73 Democratic seats as toss-ups or highly competitive, up from 68 two weeks ago and 39 at the beginning of the year.
Republicans also are headed for big gains in the Senate, where they need to sweep nearly all of the most competitive races to recapture a majority. While still difficult, some analysts also see that as increasingly possible.
"I still don't think the Republicans get a majority in the Senate, but you can start to see more clearly how it could happen," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Report, who predicts Republican gains of seven to nine seats.
Obama has seen his approval ratings slide below 50 percent over the summer, while the number of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track has climbed to above 60 percent in most polls.
The sweeping healthcare overhaul passed by Democrats in Congress remains unpopular with a majority of Americans in most polls, and public dissatisfaction with congressional Democrats is widespread.
A Gallup poll earlier this week showed Republicans with a 10-point lead over Democrats on a generic congressional ballot. That was the biggest lead on the question in the history of the respected pollster.
On a key measure of potential voter turnout, a Gallup poll on Thursday found 54 percent of Republicans saying they have given quite a lot or some thought to the elections, compared to just 30 percent of Democrats.
"Every indicator and every measure points in one direction, and that is in favor of Republicans," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.
Candidates mark the unofficial launch of the U.S. campaign season this Labor Day holiday weekend, which is traditionally the time when voters begin to focus on the election.
Democratic officials insist their prospects will improve once voters are engaged and evaluate the two parties. They say Republicans, pushed to the right by conservative "Tea Party" candidates, have drifted out of the mainstream.
They also plan a huge voter turnout operation to boost Democratic participation in what are usually low-interest midterm elections that do not feature a presidential contest to draw voters to the polls.
"Let me be very clear about it. We are going to hold the House of Representatives and we are going to hold the United States Senate. We are going to do it in each district, one at a time," said Representative John Larson, head of the Democratic House caucus.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Vicki Allen)