http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9832954 THE presidential race is so engrossing that it is easy to forget about the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The last few days alone have seen Hillary Clinton revisiting health care, the subject that kebabbed her husband's first term; John McCain getting confused over whether he is a Baptist or an Episcopalian; and Alan Keyes, an eccentric social conservative, adding a black face to the Republican line-up. But the two parties are also engaged in a fierce battle for control of Capitol Hill. And it is a battle that, so far, is even more one-sided than the race for the White House. The Democrats look set to maintain a working majority in the House: polls show the public prefer Democratic candidates for the House by 7-12 percentage points. Seven Republican incumbents have announced their intention to retire, and this week scandal-ridden Jerry Weller of Illinois looked as if he would make it eight. More important, they look set to expand their majority in the Senate from a measly onewhich depends on two independents who normally vote with the Democratsto a commanding six or seven. The party's blooming prospects in the Senate matter hugely. The Senate ratifies treaties, confirms all the president's important appointments, and tries him if he is impeached. It also allows a cabal of 41 senators to block legislation indefinitely. It is unlikely that the Democrats will reach the magic 60 votes which allow them to break Republican filibusters and force bills to a vote: but if they get close to it, they will much improve the chances for a Democratic White House to muscle through a list of planned reforms, on health care, climate change, immigration and taxes. The likelihood of this is growing by the day. The Republicans have always faced a tough fight in 2008. They are defending 21 seats compared with the Democrats' 12. They are also defending seats that they won in 2002 when George Bush was wildly popularhis approval ratings are half what they were thenand the Republicans were seen as America's natural champions against the perpetrators of September 11th, 2001. But it is beginning to look as if a tough fight could turn into a massacre. The Republicans are lagging badly in the race to raise money and recruit candidates. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has only $6.5m in the bank compared with $20.6m for its Democratic equivalent. The Republicans have failed to lure any big names to take on vulnerable Democrats such as Max Baucus of Montana and Tom Harkin of Iowa. And the rising tide of anti-war sentiment threatens to submerge a slew of Republican senators in Democratic-leaning states, such as Susan Collins (Maine), John Sununu (New Hampshire), Norm Coleman (Minnesota) and Gordon Smith (Oregon). And that is before you start to factor in the sex and ethics scandals. Alaska's Ted Stevens is under scrutiny by the FBI for improper influence-peddling. New Mexico's Pete Domenici is under investigation by his Senate colleagues for his role in the sacking of a US attorney. Louisiana's David Vitter has admitted to frequenting prostitutes. And Idaho's Larry Craig is still deciding whether to resign over a bizarre incident in an airport lavatory (one wag says that he is seeking advice from his wife and the man in stall number three). This torrent of scandals is not only damaging the Republican Party's family-values brand; it is also forcing it to devote energy to defending territory that it ought to be able to take for granted. The Democrats' already sunny prospects have brightened still further with a trio of retirements: Virginia's John Warner, Colorado's Wayne Allard and Nebraska's Chuck Hagel are all standing down. Mark Warner is the clear favourite to capture the Virginia seat: a popular ex-governor who leads his nearest Republican rival by 28 points and who has a private fortune of $200m. The Democrats also have a good chance in Colorado, where they already control both state houses, the governor's mansion and one Senate seat, and in Nebraska, if they can get Bob Kerrey, a former governor and senator, to forsake academia for a return to politics. The Democrats have also succeeded in recruiting prominent candidates to take on Republican incumbents. The biggest recent catch is Jeanne Shaheen, a popular former governor of New Hampshire, who will try to unseat Mr Sununu, the son of George Bush senior's chief of staff and, at 43, the youngest senator. New Hampshire is trending Democratic even more markedly than Coloradoin 2006 the Democrats ousted both Republican congressmen, captured the governorship and took over both state housesand Ms Shaheen is currently beating Mr Sununu by 16 points in the polls. Slim hopes The Republicans have a few straws to clutch at. They point out that someone other than Mr Bush will be leading the party into battle in 2008. They note that the Democrats have a long history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The anti-war left in particular has a genius for alienating the silent majority: witness its decision to impugn General Petraeus's patriotism by dubbing him General Betray-us. The Republicans are in with a chance of picking up a couple of seatsin South Dakota, where the incumbent is ailing, and in Louisiana, where the Democratic-voting population has not recovered since the great flight after Katrina. But that hardly evens the field. In the wake of their 2006 thumping, the Republicans thought that they could recover given the narrowness of the margins in many Senate races. But the mood among Republicans in the Senate is gloomier now than at any time since Watergate, and many moderates are breaking ranks with the leadership. It is always darkest right before you get clobbered over the head with a pipe wrench, one Republican pollster told the Washington Post. They will be lucky if is just the one pipe wrench.