WASHINGTON When Republicans see signs that Americans are having doubts about President Barack Obama's healthcare proposals and economic policies, they see opportunity as they plot strategy for 2010 elections.
Cuffed around in the 2006 and 2008 elections by Obama's Democrats, the Republican Party is looking for a way out of the political wilderness and many in the party think Obama himself may hold the key.
While Obama is not up for re-election until 2012, the congressional elections in November 2010 are likely to be seen as a referendum on his leadership.
Democrats believe an economic rebound and a healthcare insurance deal will put Obama in a stronger position by the time the 2010 election rolls around.
But with the U.S. economy still limping along and Americans worried about trillions of dollars of new spending to rescue it and pay for a healthcare overhaul, Republican leaders say the party stands a chance to pick up seats in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Senate.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate, told Reuters that it was vital for Republican candidates in 2010 to "not just talk about our principles but hold true to them."
"We're a party that doesn't believe in spending money we don't have. And Republicans that can show that they have been fiscally conservative will stand in stark contrast to the extraordinary deficits and forecasts of even greater deficits that are coming from the Democrats," said Romney, who ran for president last year and lost the party's nomination to John McCain.
A rally in Washington this month by thousands of people opposed to Obama's policies was a sign of a re-energized Republican base.
At the same time Obama's popularity has dropped, with independent voters who often hold the key to elections showing more skepticism at his healthcare plans and deficit spending.
'FAR OUTSIDE OF THE MAINSTREAM'
Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said Republicans could win 40 seats to seize control of the House.
"I have thought all along that the agenda that has emerged from this White House, which also seems to have its roots in the speaker's office (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi), will strike Americans as being far outside of the mainstream of what this country is all about," Cantor said in an interview.
Democrats point out that deficits soared under Republican President George W. Bush, aided and abetted by Republicans in Congress. They say Obama has simply been cleaning up the mess he inherited from Bush.
And they say that while Republicans may like their chances now, expected improvement in the U.S. economy and a likely victory of some sort in the healthcare debate this year will put some wind in Obama's sails and help Democrats.
"The fact is that Obama inherited two wars, an economy that was in the toilet, a banking system that was near collapse and record home foreclosures," said Democratic strategist Bud Jackson.
"In all of these areas, particularly by next year, Democrats are going to be able to point to progress having been made in each of those."
The history of elections in which there is no presidential vote is that the party in power typically loses seats. Non-partisan analysts expect 2010 will be no exception.
They predict that Republicans will pick up House seats, possibly in the double digits, but probably not as many as Cantor hopes.
House Democrats hold 256 seats to 178 for Republicans with one vacancy.
The same goes for the Senate, where Democrats hold a 60-40 majority and are likely to retain control in 2010 although they could lose a handful of seats.
GOVERNORS' RACES A CLUE
Republicans were heartened by a September 2 poll by the Pew Research Center that said voters are about evenly divided when asked how they would vote if the election were held today.
Some 45 percent would vote for a Democratic candidate in their district or lean Democratic, while 44 percent said they would vote for a Republican or lean Republican.
At about the same point four years ago, Democrats led 52 percent to 40 percent. They went on to win a majority of the popular vote and regain control of Congress the following November.
A signpost on the road to 2010 comes this November, when voters in Virginia and New Jersey elect new governors. Republicans hold narrow leads in both states but the races are far from over.
Dave Wasserman, an expert at the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said politicians are watching poll results for which way independent voters and the elderly are leaning.
"I think independents and seniors are the key drivers in this shift in the environment. They have long been skeptical at the increase in government spending and bailouts," he said.
Many Republicans in Congress see virtue in standing up to Obama, but this strategy is leading Democrats to paint them as "the party of no."
Republican strategist Tucker Eskew, who advised Senator John McCain's presidential campaign last year, said Republicans are right to contest Democratic policies but that the road to redemption will require more than that.
"We should capitalize on the other side's overreaching," he said. "And yet I'm one of those who still feels we have to earn back the trust of a broader section of the American people with new ideas, some new faces and some results-oriented politics."
(Editing by Simon Denyer and Xavier Briand)