WASHINGTON – Democrats pursued their best chance in a dozen years to take control of the House from scandal-scarred Republicans on Tuesday in a midterm election marked by voter frustration with the Iraq war.

President Bush. s the first polls closed, Rep. Harold Rogers (news, bio, voting record), a 13-term Republican, and Rep. Ben Chandler (news, bio, voting record), two-term Democrat, easily won re-election in Kentucky, as expected. Neither race was competitive.

With a message of change, Democrats sought to pick up the 15 seats they needed to reclaim power after 12 years in the minority and clear the way for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record) of California to become the first female speaker of the House.

On the defensive, Republicans aimed to extend their grip on the House for another two years despite voters’ unhappiness with the direction of the country, the war and scandals in Washington.

Scandals in Washington, the war in Iraq and overall anger toward Bush appeared to drive voters to the Democrats, according to surveys by The Associated Press and the television networks of voters as they left voting places. Several traditionally hard-fought demographic groups were choosing Democrats, including independents, moderates, the middle class and suburban women.

Those early exit polls also showed that three in four voters said corruption was very important to their vote, and they tended to vote Democratic. In a sign of a dispirited GOP base, most white evangelicals said corruption was very important to their vote — and almost a third of them turned to the Democrats.

The war in Iraq and Bush’s unpopularity appeared to hurt Republicans almost as much as the troubles on Capitol Hill.

Two out of three voters called the war very important to them and said they leaned toward the Democrats, while six in ten voters said they disapproved of the war. About the same number said they were dissatisfied with the president — and they were far more likely to vote Democratic.

All 435 House seats were on the ballot, and most incumbents were headed toward easy re-election. The magic number was 218 seats for a majority. The current lineup: 229 Republicans, 201 Democrats, one independent who lines up with the Democrats for organizational purposes, and four vacancies, three of them in seats formerly held by Republicans.

The fight for control came down to 50 or so seats, nearly half of them in a string stretching from Connecticut through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. All were in Republican hands, a blend of seats coming open and incumbents in trouble.

For months, national surveys have showed Democrats favored over Republicans by margins unseen since 1990 as voters have grown restless with the Bush administration and seemingly more ready for an end to one-party rule on Capitol Hill.

American casualties and costs have climbed in Iraq, and public support for the war has fallen, as have approval ratings for Congress along with the president.

Scandals also have dogged the GOP. Majority Leader

Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was charged with participating in a campaign finance scheme, and he resigned from the House. Rep. Bob Ney (news, bio, voting record), R-Ohio, resigned, too, after pleading guilty in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling investigation. A month before the election, Rep. Mark Foley (news, bio, voting record), R-Fla., resigned when it was disclosed that he had sent sexually explicit electronic communications to former congressional pages.

Through it all, Democrats cast the race as a national referendum on Bush and Iraq, accusing Republicans of walking in lockstep with the president and rubber stamping his policies.

Republicans insisted the elections came down to choices between individual candidates from coast to coast — and that Democrats were liberals who would raise taxes, flee from Iraq and be soft on terrorists.

Initially, Democrats targeted GOP-held seats left open by retiring Republicans as well as districts where Bush won by close margins in 2004 — many in the Northeast and Midwest. In recent weeks, Democrats have been able to expand the battlefield, making plays for seats long in Republican hands, such as in Wyoming and Idaho.

The GOP, defending its majority, made serious bids for only a handful of Democratic-held seats, including two districts in Georgia that the Republican legislature redrew to make more hospitable to the GOP.

As the 2006 midterm election cycle began, Republicans were optimistic that they would be able to extend their reign because they had limited the number of GOP retirements, leaving fewer open seats that would be targets for Democrats.

Then violence increased in Iraq and scandals erupted in the House — knocking the GOP off course. Story source:Associated Press.

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