Democrats on offense in final days as Bush seeks to avert losses

Friday, November 3rd 2006, 3:22 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Aggressive to the end, Democrats opened two new fronts Friday in the battle for control of Congress, unleashing a costly televised attack against a Colorado Republican and airing radio ads on Christian stations favored by Republican listeners.

Republicans looked to President Bush and their proven get-out-the-vote operation to minimize their losses in next Tuesday's elections, held at a time of widespread unease with the status quo.

``It was meant to be a little on the stealth side,'' Democratic chairman Howard Dean said of the radio ads, part of an attempt to appeal to conservative voters who have long backed Republicans.

The television commercial, by the party's House campaign committee, was aimed at Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a second-term Colorado lawmaker in an unexpectedly tight race for re-election. ``She works overtime for special interests,'' says the ad, which drew a swift rebuttal from her campaign.

``The special interests she works overtime for are her constituents _ farmers, ranchers, small business owners,'' shot back spokesman Guy Short.

But more than the charge-countercharge, the last-minute advertising underscored the extent to which the Democrats have been on offense and the Republicans on defense in the run-up to Tuesday's elections. As many as 60 seats in the House and a half-dozen or more in the Senate remained competitive _ almost all under GOP control _ as Democrats sought to ride a wave of discontent with the war on Iraq to victory in the polls.

Bush campaigned without letup to prevent it.

In rural Missouri to help embattled Sen. Jim Talent, Bush invoked God's name in defending his administration's policy in Iraq. ``I believe freedom is universal. I believe there's an Almighty, and a great gift of the Almighty to each man and woman and child on the face of the earth is a desire to be free,'' he said, recalling that thousands of Iraqis voted in free elections once they were freed from Saddam Hussein's tyranny.

Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview taped for airing Sunday on ABC, conceded the war may not be popular with the public. Still, he said, ``It doesn't matter in the sense that we have to continue the mission and do what we think is right.... We're not running for office. We're doing what we think is right.''

The GOP also said their vaunted get-out-the-vote operation was producing results. Rebutting Democratic claims in Arizona, Republican officials said GOP voters had requested nearly half of the absentee ballots distributed in the state, while making up slightly less than 40 percent of the voting population. They said Democrats, representing about 36 percent of the voting population, accounted for about 33 percent of the absentee ballots.

A recent AP-AOL News poll suggested that about 38 percent of likely voters either have yet to make up their minds or could change their minds before casting their ballots. Of them, 51 percent favored the Democrats, 35 percent were partial to the Republicans and 14 percent were either undecided or they refused to say how they will vote.

Republicans have held power in the House since Bush was inaugurated president in 2001, and commanded a Senate majority for most of the time. A Democratic takeover of either chamber would vastly complicate the president's attempt to make earlier tax cuts permanent or enact the changes in Social Security that he has talked about. In addition, his Iraq policy would come under increasing pressure from Democrats eager for at least the beginning of a troop withdrawal.

For better or worse for weary candidates, the end was in sight, the final television commercials shipped to the stations, the last debates behind them.

``This is the stretch run,'' said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, his bid for a third term long since written off by GOP strategists.

Santorum's Pennsylvania loomed as a particular challenge for Republicans on election night. Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell appeared to be cruising to re-election, Senate challenger Bob Casey has led in the polls for weeks, and the GOP signaled several days ago that 10-term Rep. Curt Weldon would likely lose his seat in the fallout from a federal corruption investigation in which he has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Four other GOP incumbents were in difficult races, Reps. Jim Gerlach and Michael Fitzpatrick in the Philadelphia suburbs, Rep. Melissa Hart in the western part of the state and Rep. Don Sherwood from a district in the northeast. A four-term incumbent, he is struggling for re-election after admitting to a long-term affair with a much younger woman who says he choked her.

It wasn't only personal and political scandal that was hampering Republicans.

Polls showed Bush's popularity was below 40 percent, and the war, which has cost the lives of more than 2,800 U.S. troops, was a clear loser with the voting public.

``What this race is about is changing the course,'' said Democratic Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., a young black congressman hoping to make history as the first southern black elected to the Senate in more than a century. ``My opponent is willing to do anything, say anything and spend any amount of money to stop change.''

Republicans said they were optimistic that former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker would prevail over Ford in one of the three races likely to determine Senate control. The party plowed another $400,000 into last-minute television ads to make it so.

The two other pivotal Senate races unfolded in Missouri, where Bush had two stops in the campaign's final days; and Virginia, where GOP strategists expressed growing concern over the fate of Sen. George Allen.

Once a prohibitive favorite with an eye on a 2008 presidential campaign, Allen has trailed Democratic rival Jim Webb in some recent surveys after weeks of campaign missteps. Publicly available records indicate that Webb and the Democratic senatorial campaign have far more television advertising on the air in the pivotal Washington suburbs in the campaign's final days than Allen and the GOP senatorial committee _ suggesting that the Republican lawmaker has largely depleted his once formidable campaign treasury.

While most of the seats that remained close were in Republican hands, Democrats weren't taking any chances.

In Illinois, first-term Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean led in the polls, but party strategists determined that a third-party contender, Bill Scheurer, posed a threat to her re-election. The party's House campaign committee stepped in with a mass mailing that showed a picture of the president and said, ``George W. Bush wants you to waste your vote on anti-choice, party-switching Bill Scheurer.''

Scheurer issued a statement that said contrary to the claim, ``Bean is widely regarded as a 'Bush Democrat' for voting with the Bush administration and the Republican Congress on nearly every major issue....''