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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate has given Republican lawmakers new hope of minimizing anticipated losses in the November 4 congressional elections.
"We have had a disgruntled base that Sarah Palin has clearly ignited," said Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican in the Democratic-led Congress. "The McCain campaign had been dull as dishwater. But it has suddenly become exciting."
"She's given us a huge lift," added Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri. "Any Republican candidate for Congress who's in a tough race would love John McCain and Sarah Palin coming into their district and states."
The Alaska governor is the first female Republican vice presidential nominee and America's newest political star, replacing in that role Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. In the two weeks since her selection, the former beauty queen, TV sportscaster and small-town mayor has turned into a charismatic attack dog.
Palin-mania can be traced to her speech to the Republican nominating convention in early September, which saw her come out swinging, a Republican leadership aide said.
"Before she began, there was a concern whether she could deliver the knockout punch," the aide said. "Halfway through her speech, there was a real sea change. You could feel it in the convention hall and can now see it across the country."
Before the nominating conventions, Democrats who control the Senate 51-49 were hoping to pick up as many as nine more seats, enough to give them a 60-vote majority that could clear any Republican procedural hurdle. That once-slim possibility now seems to be fading fast.
Polls since the convention ended last week show McCain, with Palin on his ticket, pulling even with or ahead of Obama, who led most of the year.
A USA Today/Gallup poll released last week found that voters' preference for Democrats over Republicans in Congress had plunged from double digits to just 3 percentage points. Analysts say the question is how long the bounce will last.
Democratic lawmakers had hoped Obama would help them extend their majority in Congress. Now many are getting edgy.
"Obama is doing everything he can to lose this election," one House Democrat grumbled after Obama appeared knocked off stride by the emergence of the Alaska governor.
Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks congressional races, said, "We are seeing improvement for Republicans." But he added that if anyone thought Republicans would win back Congress, "they are delusional."
"The playing field is stacked against them," Gonzales declared. He said Democrats enjoy a number of advantages, including having raised more money, recruited better candidates and had far fewer retirements than Republicans.
Democrats have also cashed in on a backlash against unpopular Republican President George W. Bush, whose term ends in January, and his unpopular Iraq war.
Bennett said Senate Republicans did not have unrealistic expectations but now hoped to reduce their losses.
"No one is predicting we will win control of the Senate," he said. But he said he believed his party would hold at least 45 seats, up from as few as 43 he had feared before the convention.
In the House of Representatives, which Democrats control 235-199 with one vacancy, Republican Whip Roy Blunt said, "We still have some significant challenges" but thanks to McCain and Palin, "House Republicans are feeling a lot better."
Democrats have been expecting to pick up from seven to 15 seats on Election Day November 4. Blunt declined to predict how Republicans would do, other than to say, "Better than expected."
Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, which conducts opinion polls on congressional and presidential races, cautioned against reading too much into enthusiasm over Palin.
"Republicans are feeling good. But you can get too carried away. It's very early to make a judgment that Palin has fundamentally changed things," he said.
"She's shifted the momentum a bit from Obama to McCain," Kohut said. "But whether that persists ... is still an open question."
Editing by David Alexander and Peter Cooney