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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats are off to a stronger than expected start in early voting despite months of dire predictions about their lack of enthusiasm for the November 2 midterm elections.
More Democrats than Republicans cast early ballots in a handful of key states, although more Republicans took advantage of the early voting process than in 2008 when President Barack Obama led a Democratic election sweep.
"The early voting numbers are favorable for Democrats, but here's the caution -- they are not as favorable as in 2008," said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor who tracks early voting statistics around the country.
While it is impossible to know who they voted for, more Democrats than Republicans cast early ballots in Louisiana, Iowa, Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia. Democrats have a voter registration advantage -- and a larger pool of voters to draw from -- in each of those states.
Republicans have a big lead in early voting in the battleground state of Florida and a smaller edge in Colorado, and they sharply improved their early voting performance in states like Iowa and Louisiana.
The two parties were running almost even in Maine and in Nevada, where Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is in a tight battle for re-election.
Fueled by voter unhappiness with Obama and the economy, Republicans are in a position to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives and possibly the Senate next week.
But the extent of the gains could depend on which party gets their partisans to vote, and Democrats mustered a big voter turnout effort to counter what polls say is a clear Republican advantage in enthusiasm. Some recent polls have found the advantage shrinking.
"If Democrats were supposed to roll over and play dead, that's just not happening," McDonald said. "If there was a pure enthusiasm gap, I would have expected to see more Republicans out there early."
In-person early voting is allowed at election offices or satellite locations in 32 states, with states like Florida and Nevada offering weeks of early voting and Oregon conducting all-mail balloting.
Democrats have had more success in recent elections in turning out early voters, a practice that has become more common. About 30 percent of American voters cast their ballots before election day in 2008, up from 20 percent in 2004.
Obama, who has increased his campaign schedule in recent weeks to try to crank up Democratic turnout, often focuses on early voters at his rallies.
"You need to go right after this rally, fill out that ballot, and mail it in," Obama told the crowd last week at a Seattle rally for Washington Senator Patty Murray. "Today. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but today."
Both parties saw signs of hope in the early voting.
"Despite national momentum being on the Republican side for months, we are not seeing anything resembling a Republican surge," said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, head of the party's Senate campaign effort.
Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the Republican Senate campaign committee, said it was no surprise Democrats had an early edge in Democratic-leaning states.
"Many of these races will come down to which party wins independents -- and poll after poll shows they are breaking for Republicans," he said.
In key states and key races, the makeup of the early voting electorate can give strategists ideas about how the election is shaping up -- and allow them to focus on those voters who have not cast ballots yet.
In Nevada's high-profile and highly competitive Senate race, Reid is counting on an efficient get-out-the-vote machine to help hold off Republican Tea Party-favorite Sharron Angle.
In Democratic Clark County, which encompasses Las Vegas, Democrats have cast 47 percent of the 121,995 early ballots compared to 38 percent for Republicans -- but that's down from a 22-point Democratic advantage in 2008.
In Reno's Washoe County, where voter registration is evenly split, Republicans have cast 46 percent of the 35,262 votes to 40 percent for Democrats. Democrats had a 12-point advantage in 2008.
In West Virginia, where Democrats have a whopping 30-point advantage in early voting, Republicans increased their showing by 6 percentage points. In Iowa, they were up by 7 percentage points from 2008 and in Colorado by 6 percentage points.