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Republicans on the Run

March 26, 2006

If the midterm elections were held today, top strategists of both parties say privately, the Republicans would probably lose the 15 seats they need to keep control of the House of Representatives.

Considering that Vice President Dick Cheney had come a long way to help Florida Congressman Ric Keller raise $250,000 last week, the reception he got in the Sunshine State could have been a bit warmer. After extolling Cheney as "one of the most effective Vice Presidents in the history of the U.S.," Keller launched into all the times he had recently opposed the Bush Administration, including the deal to allow a Dubai company to manage operations at several U.S. ports. And then Keller went right for the punch line: "'Don't be too hasty,'" he claimed the Vice President had pleaded with him. "'Let's go hunting. We'll talk about it.'"

As the campaign season kicks into gear, Republican incumbents are having a hard time figuring out how close they want to be to the White House. Voters have plenty to take out on Republican candidates this year—ethics scandals, the g.o.p.'s failure to curb spending, the government's inept response to Hurricane Katrina, a confusing new prescription-drug program for seniors and, more than anything else, an unpopular President who is fighting an unpopular war. Iraq could make a vulnerability of the Republicans' greatest asset, the security issue.

The midterm contests in a President's second term are almost always treacherous, but this time around, Republicans thought it would be different. The 2006 elections, coming on top of their gains in 2002 and 2004, would make history and perhaps even cement a g.o.p. majority in Congress for a generation. George W. Bush's credibility on national security and the states' aggressive gerrymandering, they believed, had turned the vast majority of districts into fortresses for incumbents. But that's not turning out to be the case. In recent weeks, a startling realization has begun to take hold: if the elections were held today, top strategists of both parties say privately, the Republicans would probably lose the 15 seats they need to keep control of the House of Representatives and could come within a seat or two of losing the Senate as well. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who masterminded the 1994 elections that brought Republicans to power on promises of revolutionizing the way Washington is run, told Time that his party has so bungled the job of governing that the best campaign slogan for Democrats today could be boiled down to just two words: "Had enough?"

Iraq is driving nearly all the big indicators the wrong way for Republicans. In a Time poll conducted last week, Bush's job approval rating was mired at 39%; 3 in 5 Americans said the country is headed in the wrong direction, and when those surveyed were given the choice between a generic Republican and a generic Democrat for Congress, the nameless Democrat won, 50% to 41%. The signs suggest an anti-Republican wave is building, says nonpartisan electoral handicapper Stuart Rothenberg, whose Rothenberg Political Report is closely followed in Washington. "The only question is how high, how big, how much force it will have. I think it will be considerable." The danger signs for Republicans show up across the electoral map but nowhere more clearly than in the swing state of Pennsylvania, where the hottest Senate race in the country is being fought and where Republican strategists say as many as five g.o.p. congressional seats are in play, out of a total 19. The President is still beloved by the state's Republican faithful, as evidenced by the fact that 500 of them showed up to see him at a $1,000-a-plate private fund raiser for Senator Rick Santorum last week in Sewickley Heights, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Santorum posed for photos with the President at the airport and leaned into a smiling handshake with political guru Karl Rove. But it was telling that Santorum, who is trailing state treasurer Bob Casey by 10 points in the latest polls, scheduled no public appearances with Bush. When Cheney flew to Newark, N.J., earlier in the week to raise nearly $400,000 that state senator Tom Kean Jr. badly needs in his bid for the U.S. Senate, the candidate didn't show up until 15 minutes after the Vice President's motorcade had left. Kean blamed the state's notorious traffic for his tardiness. Local papers confirmed that there hadn't been much congestion at the time.

On the fund-raising front, Democrats have been surprisingly competitive with the Republicans. In a rare feat for the party, the Democratic senatorial campaign committee has outraised its Republican counterpart. Last year "our bottom-line goal was not to lose any seats," says Charles Schumer, the New York Senator who heads the committee. "Now, if things fall in line, we might even pick up the Senate." Republicans could even lose the Tennessee seat of retiring majority leader Bill Frist to Representative Harold Ford, a Democrat. Few strategists in either party think a Democratic takeover of the Senate is likely, but many agree that the party's playing offense rather than defense is a remarkable turnaround, given that Democrats have more incumbents (18) fighting to keep their seats than Republicans do (15). But the g.o.p. failed to recruit strong challengers for the North Dakota, Nebraska and Florida seats that had been considered their best opportunities. "There was a chance for us to get damn close to [a filibuster-proof] 60 votes," says g.o.p. activist Grover Norquist. "We gave away three sure things."

If there's any good news for Republicans, it's that the elections are still seven months off. There is time in which any number of possible events—the capture of Osama bin Laden, for instance, or positive developments out of Iraq—could sweeten the nation's mood. Gingrich says Republicans badly need accomplishments to tell voters about. "The country actually expects the majority to implement," he says. "They hire you to govern, not just to tell them why you are right." Representative Tom Reynolds of New York, chairman of the g.o.p. House campaign committee, said the picture is more promising race by race than it is nationally. He told Time only 36 to 40 races will be in play, meaning Democrats would have to keep all their competitive seats and knock off three-quarters of the Republicans. "We have more money, and their only message is slash and burn," Reynolds said.

Republicans can take some comfort in the fact that one general rule about politics remains true, even in this difficult year: as mad as voters are at Washington in general, they are still pretty happy with the individual people who represent them. In the Time poll, 63% of respondents said they approved of the job their local lawmaker was doing. That's one reason Republican strategists say they plan to battle the national tide by localizing individual races. Localizing suggests drawing voters' attention to the issues that most affect them at home. But in practice, to political operatives it means putting an opponent through the shredder. Republicans plan to go after Democratic challengers with every bit of ammunition they can find, from old tax liens to long-ago votes to raise local taxes.

Democrats say, Bring it on. "If they want to have a negative campaign not about the issues, they will be met on the campaign field," says Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel, the former Clinton White House aide who heads the Democrats' campaign committee for House races. Theirs has been a shifting line of attack. January's mantra about the g.o.p.'s "culture of corruption" became February's lament about the "rubber-stamp Congress." The latest slogan they are hurling against the Republicans is "dangerously incompetent." (That, however, can be a tricky visual, as Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow discovered when she stood next to a placard with those two words and gave a speech two weeks ago on the Senate floor.)

The most appealing argument the Democrats are offering may be their candidates, who were recruited more for how they fit the districts in which they are running than for how they match the party's national ideology. In Pennsylvania, which has an active bloc of Catholic voters, Casey is an opponent of abortion rights. That same position cost his father, then the Governor, a speaking spot at the 1992 Democratic Convention. For what could be two close races against female Republican incumbents—Heather Wilson in New Mexico and Deborah Pryce in Ohio—Emanuel found women challengers. Former NFL quarterback Heath Schuler has added star power to the race in a North Carolina district. Incumbent Charles Taylor is on the defense there with claims that an electronic glitch prevented him from casting his vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Bush had sought but is unpopular among Taylor's constituents, who believe it will cost the state jobs. The most obvious line of defense for Republican candidates is to point out their differences with the President, as the party-wide revolt over the ports deal amply demonstrated. In the face of the Democrats' "rubber stamp" charges, g.o.p. lawmakers are distancing themselves on other issues as well. In Kentucky, Representative Anne Northup, generally a staunch Bush backer, notes that she strongly supports reimporting cheaper drugs from Canada. In Missouri, Senator Jim Talent emphasizes his successful push for an amendment to last year's energy bill that requires 7.5 billion gallons of renewable energy to be in the nation's fuel pipeline by 2012. Boasts Talent adviser Lloyd Smith: "He took on the Bush Administration and the oil companies."

But party leaders are warning privately against taking that strategy too far. "If Diet Coke criticizes Coke, people buy Pepsi, not Diet Coke," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee. In an internal Republican Party memo provided to Time, Jan van Lohuizen, a longtime Bush pollster, warns candidates tempted to distance themselves that "President Bush drives our image and will do so until we have real national front-runners for the '08 nomination. If he drops, we all drop." Another Republican strategist describes the problem for g.o.p. candidates this way: "Adding weight to the anchor doesn't help them."

Meanwhile, although there is no doubt that Americans are unhappy with the Republicans who run the country, Democratic strategists acknowledge that they have yet to sell voters on their party. In the Time poll, approval for congressional Democrats is no higher (39%) than for Republicans, and 56% of voters said they don't believe the Democrats offer a clear set of alternative policies. Democratic activists and fund raisers are putting pressure on their leaders to come up with a program to tout as an option different from the Republican agenda, the way Gingrich and g.o.p. candidates did in 1994 with their 10-point Contract with America. Few voters were aware of the particulars of the Contract, but it helped give coherence and a positive tilt to the party message. Emanuel points out that the Republicans did not unveil their 1994 Contract until September of that year and says the Democrats are leery of doing anything right now that may draw attention away from the Republicans' problems. Still, he promises, "we will have, and properly so, in late spring and early summer a rollout [that tells voters], You give us the car, and we'll drive it."

Indeed, the party's House leaders and committee chairs have begun making plans for their first moves if they take power, Democratic sources told Time. Those sources said one of the first steps that a newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would take would be to introduce legislation making college tuition more affordable for middle-class families, perhaps through tax credits and lower interest rates on student loans. Democrats would move immediately to tighten port security, seeking to have 100% of incoming container cargo inspected. A Democratic official briefed on the plans said the party would quickly push a bill designed to inhibit future lobbying scandals. The sources said Democrats would push for changes to the troubled Medicare prescription-drug plan, giving more control to Medicare and less to private providers and striking the provision that prevents the government from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Administration officials say they fear that losing even one house of Congress would mean subpoenas and investigations--a taste of the medicine House Republicans gave Bill Clinton. "Everything will grind to a halt," one said. That prediction could be a scare tactic designed to get out the g.o.p. vote. But Democrats say that if they are victorious in November, they plan to force Bush to be more accountable, and they intend to dig through records of contracts in Iraq, for homeland security and for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California, one of the most dogged critics of the Administration, would be in line to chair the House Government Reform Committee and could write witness lists instead of open letters to the West Wing. "Some of these ranking members have had 10 years to think about what they would do," a Democratic official said. If Republicans can't change the course of things soon, the Democrats may have their chance.

--With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr./ Stamford, Conn.; Massimo Calabresi/ Reading, Pa.; Paul Cuadros/ Chapel Hill, N.C.; Michael Duffy/Washington; Eric Ferkenhoff/ Chicago, Michael Lindenberger/ Louisville, Ky.; Barbara Liston/ Orlando, Fla.; Christopher Maag/ Cleveland, Ohio; Siobhan Morrissey/ Miami; and Constance E. Richards/ Asheville, N.C.

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