For most Americans the impending last act of the battle of the budget may mean relief, but for Republicans the dominant feeling is dread: They fear that the spectacle on Capitol Hill could prove to be the prelude to a political debacle. Twelve days before voters go to the polls, Republicans find themselves bitterly divided, confronted with the challenge of closing ranks behind a president whose once-vaunted personal prestige has been battered and whose policies have been clouded by the prolonged and frustrating fiscal struggle.
"They seem to have lost the political high ground on taxes and spending that Republicans have held for years," said John Petrocik, a University of California, Los Angeles, specialist on political parties and a sometime Republican consultant.
Instead of the starring role as the friend of the average taxpayer that they assigned to themselves during the Ronald Reagan presidency, they now find themselves cast as the heavy in the American political melodrama _ the accomplice of the wealthy and privileged.
"Bush is the loser and therefore his party is the loser," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union and director of Bush's first presidential campaign in 1980.
"As his popularity has fallen, so have the poll ratings for a lot of Republican candidates."
More fundamentally, other polling data suggests that the political landscape is undergoing a seismic change on the pocketbook issues, which are crucial in deciding most elections _ and which generally have gone the Republicans' way since the dawn of the Reagan era.
By a 31 percent to 30 percent margin, Americans interviewed in a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll published Thursday believe that Democrats would do a better job than Republicans of dealing with the economy _ a 15 percent shift in the Democrats' favor since November 1989.
The poll also gave the Democrats a 13-point lead on public confidence in their ability to deal with the tax issue _ a 20-point turnaround.
And on the bottom-line question of voting preference for Congress, Democrats had a 9-point margin _ up 10 points from a 1-point deficit last May.
As for the Democrats, they declared victory on the budget and contended that they could transform that success into votes.
Among their successes were to force President Bush to agree to a tax increase _ despite his "read my lips" campaign pledge to avoid any new taxes _ and to discard his cherished proposal for a cut in tax rates on capital gains.
More important in the long run, during the fiscal fights on Capitol Hill, the Democrats managed to shift the focus of the debate from ways to cut taxes and spending to their own favorite theme of economic fairness, exemplified by making higher-bracket taxpayers pay more in taxes.
Indeed, Democratic strategists believe that the party has moved forward amid the budget crisis.
"We have put something down in terms of where we stand on policy," said Douglas Sosnick, political director of the Democratic House Campaign Committee.
Bush himself sought to lead a Republican counteroffensive _ heading out today on a four-day sweep to the Pacific shore and Hawaii. But some Republican strategists, notably Ed Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, are decidedly skeptical about how much help Bush and his policies can be to Republican candidates.
In an Oct. 15 memo to House Republicans, Rollins warned: "Clearly base-Republican voters are confused about mixed signals coming from Republicans in Washington."
To reassure these voters, Rollins counseled: "Do not hesitate to oppose either the president or proposals as being advanced in Congress."
Disclosure of the memo this week drew an angry response from White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater and led White House officials to push for Rollins' resignation.
But it is doubtful that forcing Rollins out will eliminate misgivings about Bush evident among the candidates he sought to support.
Last week when Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., was asked whether the president would make a return appearance to help his hard-pressed candidacy, he responded: "He offered to come but apparently _ it may be an aberration _ the president has pulled down .
. all Republican candidates."
Bush's retreat from his pledge of no new taxes cleared the way for the Democrats to change the parameters of political debate from raising taxes vs. cutting spending to who should bear the burden of increased taxes.
"Some political leaders in the Democratic Party think that it is helping them politically to raise taxes on wealthy people," Republican spokesman Charles Black complained hours before the final language of the budget proposal was settled.
Indeed that is exactly what Democrats do believe.
Moreover, they contend that this old populist formula is already working, spurring the return to the fold of two key constituency groups _ senior citizens and blue-collar workers whose ties forged during New Deal days have been frayed in recent years.
Democrats say that the "economic fairness" theme has been particularly effective in states with a populist tradition such as North Carolina, where it is aiding Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte, in his challenge to Sen. Jesse Helms.
Also benefiting, they say, are Democratic House candidates in economically hard-hit New England states and Democratic Senate candidates in states with heavy percentages of older citizens.
These include Minnesota, where Democrat Paul Wellstone has narrowed the lead of Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz; Iowa, where Democrat Tom Harkin has been gaining on his Republican challenger, Rep. Tom Tauke; and Massachusetts, where Democrat John Kerry has widened his lead over Republican senatorial candidate James Rappaport.