CHICAGO — With only weeks left in the campaign, some staggering Democrats have jumped back into contention in congressional and gubernatorial races around the country, giving the party glimmers of hope that Election Day won't also be doomsday.
In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn has caught up in recent polls after running scathing ads suggesting his opponent is a gun-happy tax cheat who wants to cut the minimum wage. And California Sen. Barbara Boxer gained by portraying the Republican candidate as a heartless corporate bigwig.
The Democratic movement, seen in about a dozen races in six states, is limited and hardly amounts to a surge, as some Democrats have boasted. Republicans still have significant momentum in a year when voters are scared about their jobs.
But the latest developments suggest that a midterm campaign already marked by surprising victories and defeats, and which could change control of Congress, still remains somewhat unsettled. Strategists in both parties maintain that aggressive campaigning and advertising could still energize enough listless Democrats or sway enough independents to make a difference in key races.
"The results were called about a month ago, but it turns out we might have an election after all," joked Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.
The latest ABC/Washington Post poll found Democrats strengthened their position in the past month but still generally trail. The survey shows Republican congressional candidates with a 6 percentage point lead, compared with 13 points a month ago on the question which party the voter plans to support this fall.
There's no evidence that Democrats have gained enough to change the number of House and Senate seats that are up for grabs. In fact, it's the Republicans who are expanding into new districts as they see potential weak spots.
Some 75 House seats and about 16 Senate seats are competitive, the bulk of them now held by Democrats. Currently, Democrats have a 255-178 advantage in the House and a 59-41 Senate majority.
Republicans acknowledge some movement, although they maintain it signals no fundamental shift in the election landscape.
"I think what you're seeing around the country is that the base is starting to come back," said Bill Pascoe, a Virginia-based Republican political strategist.
Some Republicans are trying to use the situation to their advantage. "Don't let the Democrats bounce back," South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint warns in a new fundraising appeal.
Democratic insiders attribute the uptick in part to longtime Democratic voters being scared into action by warnings that Republicans might capture both the House and Senate.
Another possibility is that voters are getting to the point of comparing specific candidates instead of expressing general discontent. It's one thing to be fed up with Washington, according to this theory; it's another to reject a familiar officeholder who has served your area for years.
Recent controversies surrounding some tea party candidates, such as Christine O'Donnell of Delaware, could be contributing to doubts among some moderates. "In a lot of places, Democrats have been able to narrow the gap by talking about how out of touch their Republican opponent is," said Democratic political consultant Mo Elleithee.
President Obama visited his home state Thursday to help Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic Senate candidate who is locked in a tight race with Republican Rep. Mark Kirk.
Obama has also recorded a radio commercial for Quinn, the man who moved into the governor's office after Democrat Rod Blagojevich was ousted over corruption allegations.
Quinn has struggled to overcome his Blagojevich connection, his call to raise income taxes and general voter dissatisfaction with Democrats' domination of Illinois government.
Earlier polls had Quinn trailing state Sen. Bill Brady by double digits, but newer ones show him pulling even or maybe even inching ahead.
His surge comes after a round of ads telling voters that the relatively unknown Republican opposes restrictions on assault weapons, thinks the state minimum wage is too high and paid no federal income taxes last year. "Who is this guy?" the Quinn ads ask.
Quinn and Boxer have the benefit of running in Democratic-leaning states. That gives them a larger pool of sympathetic voters.
Three California polls in mid- and late-September found Boxer pulling ahead after running an ad accusing Republican challenger Carly Fiorina of enriching herself as a corporate executive while laying off thousands of workers. Fiorina responded by attacking Boxer's "arrogance" for asking an Army Corps of Engineers general to call her "senator" rather than "ma'am" during a hearing.
Many voters did not know Fiorina, a former Hewlett Packard CEO, at the outset of the campaign, and their impressions could be shaped by advertising. In March, 22 percent held an unfavorable view of her and 20 percent held a favorable view. By September, the unfavorables had climbed to 38 percent, compared with 34 percent favorable.
Image problems for the Republican candidate have also helped Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who won South Dakota's lone House seat in 2004.
Sandlin struggled in her re-election race until it emerged that Republican Kristi Noem had racked up 20 speeding tickets and other traffic violations since 1989, including one for driving 94 mph in a 75 mph zone. She apologized, but the tickets carried weight in a state where the last Republican House member was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for a 2003 car crash.
Another Democratic bright spot is Washington state, where Sen. Patty Murray saw an uptick in the polls after airing ads portraying Republican Dino Rossi as a puppet of bankers who want to repeal financial regulations. Rossi, despite trailing in campaign money, has responded with ads saying the incumbent has "an 18-year record of taxing, spending and growing government that's indefensible."
Republican strategists attributed most of the Democratic gains to voters coming home to their party in Democrat-leaning states. They urged GOP candidates to ignore the old maxim that all politics is local and instead make the election a referendum on Obama and the Democratic Congress.
Associated Press writers Judy Lin in Sacramento, Calif.; Liz Sidoti in Washington, D.C., and Curt Woodward in Olympia, Wash., contributed to this report.