Politics, they say, makes for strange bedfellows. The 2002 mid-term elections, however, may be even more strange than usual.

“September 11 changed the dynamics of this election,” says Charlie Cook, a Washington political observer, on hand for the recent National Cotton Council Annual meeting in Dallas.

The fall election, he said, will be remarkable. “The stakes are high and the margins are narrow.”

Cook said with the slimmest of margins in the Senate, 50 to 49 in favor of the Democrats, and a slender Republican edge in the House, both parties will need every vote to maintain or gain seats.

“In the Senate, Republicans have 26 seats up for reelection; Democrats have 14. Three Democratic and three Republican seats are teetering and three from each side are in some danger,” Cook said.

But the political landscape has been littered with the debris of September 11.

“Before the terrorist attack, policy issues favored Democrats rather than Republicans. Potential voters were concerned with environment and health issues. They also worried about the budget deficit and President Bush would have gotten the blame. Approval rate was only 51 percent with disapproval at 39 percent, just before 9/11.”

“Democrats had big leads in the polls and it was setting up to be a typical election.”

“Typical,” Cook said, means trouble for the incumbent party. “Since the Civil War, the party in power has lost seats in the House of Representatives in 32 of 34 elections. The Senate party in power has lost seats in six of the last 10 elections.”

That appeared to be the way the election was headed late last summer.

“Now, the issues have changed,” Cook said. “The president's approval rate has soared to as high as 91 percent and settled at a range of 78 percent to 85 percent.”

Concern over terrorism, he said, has replaced economic, health and environmental issues. “Fears are higher among women.

“As concerns start swinging back to other issues, the numbers for Republicans likely will go down and Democrats will rise. That has not happened yet.”

Cook said polls indicate voters now attribute the deficit to four factors: the cost of the terrorism fight, a recession, defense spending and the tax cut. And, a reversal from last summer, “Bush is not blamed for the recession or the deficit.”

Cook said no one is certain where the issues will settle. “The Democrats need for the economy to get better quickly and then move the spotlight to other issues, such as health and the environment.”

He said the 2004 presidential race also changed on September 11. “Al Gore was the biggest loser,” he said. “Prior to 9/11, polls showed Gore and Bush running even. After 9/11, Gore had slipped as much as 30 points behind.”

Cook said Gore wants the Democrat Party nomination again in 2004 but doubts he'll get it.

“The feeling is that he blew it. I don't think he'll get the party's support.”

Waiting in the wings will be Joe Lieberman — “if Gore doesn't run.” Also, jockeying for position are Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Biden.

Cook said the situation could be similar to 1991, when former President Bush came out of the Gulf War with high approval marks but lost in 1992.

“We've seen a change in voting patterns over the past 12 years,” Cook said. From 1968, when Nixon, Humphrey and Wallace ran, until 2002 “Republicans lost only once, in 1976. The recipe for success was to win big in rural areas and small-town America. They also ran strong in the suburbs, capturing from 9 percent to 22 percent of the vote. They got killed in medium and big cities but still won four of five elections.”

But the pattern changed in 1992 when “Clinton carried the suburbs in the national vote. He carried the suburbs again in 1996 by 9 percent. In 2000, Bush carried the suburbs but only by 2 percent. He won the Southern suburbs by 20 percentage points but lost in the North by 15 percent. Also, in the popular vote, the Republicans are 0 for 3 in 1992, 1996, and 2000.”

Cook said the national suburban vote has moved out of “Republican control into the middle ground.”

The electorate represents a near “perfect balance,” Cook said. “Consequently, it will be a fascinating election, a tiny balance in both houses with huge stakes.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com