UPPER ARLINGTON, Ohio., Dec. 1-Democrats are hard to find in this upscale Columbus suburb, home to Representative Deborah Pryce, the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House. Yet Democrats now think they can do the unthinkable: unseat Ms. Pryce in 2006.
She is not their only target. These are tough times for Republicans, and nowhere more so than in Ohio, a Republican-dominated state that has become a political crucible, testing the party's strength nationally as next year's mid-term elections approach.
The Republican governor, Bob Taft, is ensnared in an ethics scandal that has sent his approval ratings into a freefall. One House Republican from Ohio, Representative Bob Ney, has been implicated in a federal fraud investigation. Another, Representative Jean Schmidt, has been ridiculed on late night television for sharply criticizing a prominent Democrat over the war in Iraq.
With President Bush's popularity ratings dropping, Republican candidates in Ohio say they will run on their own records, not that of their party or the president. They are mindful that in Central Ohio, as in the rest of the nation, unease over the economy and the war in Iraq runs deep.
At Huffman's Market, an independent grocery store in Upper Arlington, one supporter of Ms. Pryce said she was "very unhappy" with President Bush over the war. An hour's drive south, in the blue-collar city of Chillicothe, where Mayor Joe Sulzer is challenging Mr. Ney, another Republican woman spoke bitterly of losing her job at a shoe factory when the plant moved overseas.
"I think we need to throw them all out and get new," said the woman, Christine Chaney, echoing the Democrats' refrain that Washington needs a change.
Whether such sentiments will translate into votes against Republicans remains to be seen; Ms. Pryce, for example, holds an important leadership post as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference and will undoubtedly be tough to beat. Still, she is facing her first credible Democratic opponent since being elected to Congress in 1992 .
"It is challenging," Ms. Pryce said when asked if it is hard to be an Ohio Republican these days. "I think the Democrats see Ohio as a target. They believe the time is right to make some progress here."
And history favors the Democrats because the party out of power typically gains seats in a mid-term election during a president's second term. In Ohio, Democrats hope to unseat as many as eight House Republicans, as well as the state's senior senator, Mike DeWine. Mr. DeWine is considered vulnerable, having run slightly behind his leading Democratic opponent, Representative Sherrod Brown, in the polls.
"All political roads lead to Ohio in 2006," said Charlie Cook, the editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. "First, there is almost no way Democrats can get control of the Senate back without beating DeWine. Second, it's going to be one of the best chances Democrats have to pick up a governorship, and a big governorship, not just any old governorship. And third, it's the state with the most vulnerable Republican House seats in the country."
Suburbs like Upper Arlington, a wealthy Republican area, will be critical. Experts say suburbs are trending Democratic, and last year, when Senator John Kerry ran for president, Upper Arlington's Democrats went all out in support of him, forming a fledgling political group, UA for Kerry.
They raised a banner along the July 4 parade route - "We drew criticism for being political," said Jody Scarbrough, a founder of the group, - and planted lawn signs. Mr. Kerry took 43 percent of the vote in Upper Arlington, Ms. Scarbrough said, but that was good news compared with Al Gore's 36 percent in 2000.
Ms. Pryce's district, which includes a chunk of nearby Columbus, was essentially split between Mr. Kerry and President Bush. Ms. Pryce herself took 60 percent of the vote in 2004, her lowest margin since 1992.
"It was really an awakening," Ms. Scarbrough said.
Now, with a Web site and an e-mail list of 1,500 and a new name, UA Progressive Action, the group is throwing itself behind Ms. Pryce's competitor, Mary Jo Kilroy, the president of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners. Ms. Kilroy entered the race in October after an intense courtship by Washington Democrats. Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the Democratic whip from Maryland, flew to Ohio to see her, and every Democrat in the Ohio delegation left encouraging messages on her cellphone.
Early Wednesday morning, Ms. Kilroy could be found at a wood-paneled breakfast joint on the outskirts of downtown Columbus, making a pitch to a friendly audience of union leaders. Her aides brought green folders stuffed with statistics and press releases, including one from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee linking Ms. Pryce with Representative Tom DeLay, who stepped aside as majority leader after being indicted in his home state, Texas.
Ms. Kilroy's message adopted the language Democrats are using around the nation. She said Ms. Pryce voted with Mr. DeLay "94 percent of the time," a figure Ms. Pryce attributes mostly to procedural votes. Mr. Kilroy decried the Republican "culture of corruption" and called Congress a "rubber stamp."
That phrase is the centerpiece of radio advertisements the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is running in Ohio this week against Ms. Pryce and two other Republicans, Representatives Steve Chabot and Steven C. LaTourette. The advertisement singles out their recent vote on the Republican budget, which cut federal student aid by $14 billion.
"This is a winnable race," Ms. Kilroy told the union men. "For a long time we have thought that this was an untouchable seat, that the Republicans had a lock on the Congressional districts in Central Ohio. That will be shown to be wrong."
Incumbents have a powerful advantage, however, and Democrats like Ms. Kilroy will have to do more than criticize Republicans to win. At a forum in Cleveland on Wednesday, Mr. Ney sounded confident, saying he is cooperating with investigators and did not believe that ethics inquiries would hurt Republicans at the polls. Thursday night, he was planning a fund-raiser in Columbus; Ms. Pryce is among the hosts.
"They just can't paint Republicans with the bad Bush brush," said Neil Clark, a Republican lobbyist in Columbus. "They're going to have to give a substantial reason why Republicans shouldn't be here."
Democrats will also have to recruit more candidates. Aside from Representatives Ney, Pryce, Chabot, LaTourette and Schmidt, Mr. Cook says Representatives Michael R. Turner, Pat Tiberi and Ralph Regula are all vulnerable. But of the eight, so far only Ms. Pryce, Mr. Ney and Mr. Turner have opponents.
Republicans are also comforted by the results of a recent ballot initiative, in which four voting and campaign finance proposals backed by Democrats were resoundingly defeated. Mr. Chabot, like Mr. Ney, says that a national message will not work and that every race will be local.
"I'm going to run on my own record and what I've done and what I intend to do," Mr. Chabot said, "and the people of my district will ultimately make the decision."
Mr. DeWine sounded a similar theme. "Ohioans are very discerning," he said. "They make individual decisions in individual races."
Republicans also say time is on their side. Last summer, after Ms. Schmidt squeaked out a victory over Paul Hackett, a Democrat and Iraq war veteran in an overwhelmingly Republican district, Ms. Pryce told the editorial board of The Columbus Dispatch that the political situation for Ohio Republicans was "just dreadful." Now she predicts that next year will be different.
"Hopefully, the governor's problems will be behind us, the war in Iraq will be taking a different phase," Ms. Pryce said. "I think that things will change enough that Ohio won't be quite as fertile as the Democrats believe it is right now."