WASHINGTON – On the eve of midterm elections, Democrats criticized Republicans as stewards of a stale status quo while President Bush declared, “we’re closing strong” in a final drive to preserve GOP control of Congress.
“They can’t run anything right,” countered former President Clinton, taunting Republicans about the war in Iraq, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and even the scandal involving the House page program that complicated GOP efforts to win two more years in power.
Bush campaigned on Monday from Florida to Arkansas and Texas. But the day brought one more reminder of his poor standing in the polls when Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist skipped the presidential rally in Pensacola, Fla., to make a speech of his own hundreds of miles away.
Bush made no mention of the evident snub in public, but not so his aides. “Let’s see how many people show up in Palm Beach on 24 hours notice, versus 8,000 or 9,000 people” expected for the president’s speech, said Karl Rove, the White House’s top political strategist.
Some late polls suggested momentum was swinging the Republicans’ way, and Ken Mehlman, the party chairman, told allies the surveys summoned memories of 1998, when the GOP lost seats but held power.
Democrats steadfastly refused to say so in public, but some Republicans signaled privately they expected to lose more than 15 seats, and control of the House with them.
Among GOP-held open seats, those in Arizona, Colorado, New York, Ohio and Iowa seemed likeliest to fall. Republican Reps. John Hostettler, Chris Chocola and Mike Sodrel of Indiana; Charles Taylor of North Carolina; Curt Weldon, Don Sherwood and Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania; and Charles Bass of New Hampshire were in particularly difficult re-election struggles.
Democrats also boasted of several election targets in New York, where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Eliot Spitzer, the Democratic candidate for governor, were expected to win landslides at the top of the ticket.
Easily two dozen more Republican seats were in jeopardy, including one in Texas that may not be settled until next month. There, Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla and former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a Democrat, were the leading contenders in an eight-candidate field. A runoff between the two top vote-getters would follow if no one wins a majority today.
In contrast, only a few Democratic incumbents appeared in jeopardy, including Reps. John Barrow in Georgia, Melissa Bean in Illinois and – in a race that bore no impact on the broader party struggle – William Jefferson in Louisiana. Jefferson, ensnared in a federal corruption investigation, faced a likely runoff on Dec. 9, possibly against fellow Democrat Karen Carter.
After months of pursuing the Republicans, Democrats declined to say they would catch them.
“From the Iraq war to the economy to how the Congress does its work, the American people want a different direction – and that’s what Democrats offer,” Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the head of the House Democrats’ campaign committee, said Monday.
“We have never said we’re going to take control of the Senate. We have said we’re on the edge. That’s where we are,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Senate Democrats’ organization.
Democrats needed to gain six seats to win control of the Senate. GOP Sens. Mike DeWine in Ohio and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania appeared in deepest trouble, Sens. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Conrad Burns in Montana somewhat less so.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, in line to become the first woman speaker in history if Democrats win, was in Washington after a weekend of campaigning for candidates in Pennsylvania and Connecticut.