An unpopular war, rising oil prices and Washington scandal added up to Republican debacle at the polls.

It was 1974, a year much like 2006.

In the Philadelphia suburbs, jubilant Democrats back then had hopes of building on their gains for the long term. But it never happened. The anti-Vietnam War, anti-Watergate mood faded, and Republicans gradually restored near-total suburban dominance.

Now, more than a generation later, suburban Democrats once again are coming off big gains in a national election, and once again they hope to capitalize on that at the local level.

They believe they have a good chance of accomplishing a goal that has eluded them for decades: to grab control of a suburban courthouse from the GOP.

With that political lightning bolt would come power to appoint Democrats to a raft of authorities and commissions; power to choose Democratic-leaning firms for professional contracts; power to award patronage jobs.

Republicans concede that losing their grip on one or more of the four suburban counties - Montgomery is most often mentioned - is at least possible.

The suburbs "are certainly more in play than they have been in two generations, since 1974," said Guy Ciarrocchi, executive director of President Bush's Pennsylvania campaign in 2004 and now chief of staff for Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach.

Capturing a courthouse would be the holy grail for Democrats. Also up for grabs will be school boards and municipalities.

"My position has been, until we win the county courthouse, we haven't done anything," said Marcel Groen, Democratic leader of Montgomery County.

It was one thing for Gov. Rendell and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey to clock their Republican foes in all four suburban counties in November.

It was one thing for Rep. Joe Sestak, based in Delaware County, and Rep. Patrick Murphy, based in Bucks County, to oust Republicans from the U.S. House.

It was one thing for Democrats to gain their first-in-a-century state Senate seat in Chester County and to add five state House seats across the suburbs - two in Bucks County and one each in Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties.

But it would be altogether another thing to storm a courthouse. County bureaucracies are huge. Montgomery alone has 3,300 employees and a budget of $463 million.

The question is: Will what drove voters into the Democrats' arms last year matter in contests for county contests?

Will the Iraq war, oil prices, and Washington lobbyist scandals count in battles over who gets to set property taxes, manage county prisons, and provide social services?

"It's two different ballparks," said John McNichol, a Delaware County GOP leader. "This isn't about the unpopularity of George Bush. This is about tax dollars and cents."

Of course, there was more than national issues behind Democratic gains. The party has been growing in voter registration since the early '90s.

Of 1,642,063 registered suburban voters in the last election, 802,204 were Republicans and 601,905 were Democrats. Republicans still lead in every county, but Democrats are closing the gap.

"If either party takes the voters for granted - the GOP because of a registration advantage, or the Dems because of the perception of a wave or trend - they will lose," Ciarrocchi said.

What has helped Democrats is the rising number of independents. Together, Democrats and independents account for 51.1 percent of suburban voters.

Independents in recent years have tended to vote with Democrats. Many moderate Republicans, feeling out of sync with conservative national GOP leadership, also have supported Democrats.

Tom Judge, GOP chairman of Delaware County, said Republicans must remind voters of what he called the party's record of keeping taxes low and running counties efficiently.

"I think people will look at the good government they have in Delaware County and they'll vote Republican," Judge said.

Republican angst and Democratic hopes have set off some intra-party battles.

In Montgomery County, popular GOP District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. has offered himself as his party's savior.

"I see a train wreck developing in Montgomery County politics, and I am trying to do my best to stop it," Castor said in January before plunging into the county commissioner race.

The problem with Castor's big splash was that Republicans already had two people in the pool. Thomas Jay Ellis and James R. Matthews are seeking reelection with backing from party chairman Ken Davis.

Others may also enter the May 15 primary. The lineup won't be known until the filing deadline Tuesday.

In Montgomery - as in Chester and Bucks - voters will elect three commissioners in the fall. But no party may hold more than two seats, guaranteeing one for a minority party.

Montgomery County Democrats have settled on incumbent Ruth S. Damsker and former U.S. Rep. Joseph Hoeffel, a minority commissioner in the '90s, as their candidates.

Hoeffel said Tuesday Democrats have "an excellent chance of winning."

In Bucks, Republican-turned-Democrat Andrew Warren has joined incumbent Sandra A. Miller as a Democratic team. It was in Doylestown, in the '80s, that Democrats last ran a suburban courthouse.

Two other Democrats have also sought party backing.

Bucks Republicans likely will field two incumbents: Charles H. Martin and James F. Cawley.

In Chester County, each party may have a primary battle.

"The biggest threat the Republicans face right now is internally," said political science professor John Kennedy of West Chester University.

The party has endorsed incumbent Commissioner Carol Aichele and Recorder of Deeds Terence Farrell. But two other Republicans - Jury Commissioner Sandy Moser and county Treasurer Alan J. Randzin - have said they plan to stay in.

Party chairman Joseph "Skip" Breon said Republicans expect a battle from Democrats.

"It's been a long time since things have been a slam dunk," he said.

Democrats also have four people running, but have tried to characterize it as a blessing of riches. In the past, said party chairman Michele Vaughn, it wasn't easy to get qualified candidates.

In Delaware County, where Republicans hold all five seats on the county council, it would be a victory for Democrats to claim even one. The county adopted a home-rule charter in 1976 that created the council and permitted one party to hold all seats.

With three seats open, the Republicans have endorsed Middletown Township Commissioner Christine Fizzano Cannon, Springfield Township Commissioner Tom McGarrigle, and Haverford Township Commissioner Andrew Lewis.

Democratic chairman Cliff Wilson said in years past he had to work to recruit candidates, who often expected to lose.

"Now, all of a sudden, I've got seven people who want to run for three seats, and I can tell you honestly I didn't recruit any of them," Wilson said.

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Edgar, who won a seat in Delaware County in 1974, had advice for Democrats: Don't count your chickens.

The Republicans are resourceful and will fight back, he said.

"The issues that people focus on nationally have little impact on local elections," he said. "There, people just want somebody who can fix the traffic light and fill the potholes."

Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.