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This column was written by Terence Samuel.

In light of the continuing GOP meltdown, Democrats all over are being forced to confront "The Big Question" about their chances of winning in November. The question that must keep rolling over in their heads and which remains largely unasked, or asked only in jest, is: "How are we going to mess this up?"

For now, the fairest answer may be that nothing the Democrats do or say can make any difference in halting the Republican self-immolation that has been proceeding apace. But there is a real nervousness — and not just in Washington — that the Democratic Party will find a way to turn the good news into bad by the time Election Day rolls around.

Many have reasonably surmised that Republicans, in light of their poor poll numbers, will at some point start playing hardball. They worry that when that happens Democrats will not be prepared to adequately respond. Defeat has a long, bitter aftertaste, and defeatism is a hard habit to kick.

For those Democrats who find themselves in this edgy place, it's been a little bit of a rough patch: There are clear signals about how Republicans are going to run the fall campaign. Can anyone say tax cuts, or gay marriage, or English as the official language, or the Wall of America?

First, the President signs a tax cut bill that Democrats should have been able to stop. Then the Senate went for a loopy turn with its Great-Wall-along-the-Mexican-border idea. Then came the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which won approval so easily in Arlen Specter's Senate Judiciary Committee you'd think Specter was up for re-election this year instead of in 2010.

The tax cut was especially troubling. If Democrats can't come up with a coherent argument to beat back a tax cut on capital gains and dividend income when the President is nearly at 30 percent, when people are worried about the cost of the Iraq War, when consumer confidence is at an all time low, they are going to have trouble stopping anything.

The vote in the Senate, 54 to 44, was almost strictly along party lines. Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida voted for the cut, along with Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Republicans Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio voted against it — an even three-for-three swap.

But if Democrats are not going to bottle up this bill, all the deficit-fiscal-responsibility talk is going to come across as just that — talk.

And they don't have to worry about whether, but when, the Republicans were going to go to their favorite bag of tricks, which, it seems, may leave Democrats wrong-footed on just enough issues to make sure Election Day is a disappointment.

Frankly, if you are squeamish on tax cuts, the gay marriage debate promises to be a bloodbath.

It's not that difficult to handicap where the GOP onslaught is going to come from. A few weeks ago, none other than the deposed Tom DeLay laid out the strategy in plain sight, on a Sunday morning show.

ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked DeLay if Republicans had enough time to stop the bleeding in their own party and run a decent fall campaign. DeLay made it clear that they have no intention this fall of talking about Iraq or corruption or National Security Agency wiretapping. Those who think that's what the election is going to be about have, as they say, another thing coming.

"Well, the first thing you do," DeLay said, is scare the hell out of your base. The emphasis is mine and these are my words, but that was DeLay's take, in effect.

He said: "I had a very prominent conservative in my office just this week and he asked me that very question, and I said, 'look at the alternative.' The things that are important to him — gay marriage, stem-cell research, judicial activism, abortion — all are in the Judiciary Committee. John Conyers will be the chairman of the Judiciary Committee if the Democrats take over. John Conyers is to the left of … Howard Dean, and he's already participated in mock impeachment hearings."

So you see, what's at stake come November is not the cost and conduct of the Iraq War or the high price of gas. It's whether Conyers, a black, liberal, longtime congressman from Detroit gets to lead the House Judiciary Committee.

It'll get uglier than usual. Specter's gay marriage amendment already caused Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to clash with the chairman and walk out of the hearing with each man spitting insults at the other. There will be more where that came from, and a lot of what looks like legislation in the next few month will really be the GOP loudly changing the subject. The big question for Democrats is, will they allow that to happen?

Terence Samuel is a political writer in Washington, D.C.

By Terence Samuel
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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