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Battle Lines Being Drawn

Parties Sharpen Attacks After Bailout Vote

As Congressional leaders regroup in the wake of the House defeat of the $700 billion rescue package for the financial markets, the politics of the issue have accelerated on the House and Senate campaign trails.

Republican Senate candidates — after taking a beating from Democrats in recent days — went on the offensive this week, going up with television ads that blamed Democrats for the flailing economy.

House Democratic strategists, meanwhile, believe the sagging stock market provides a golden issue for their candidates to run on — the prospect that some Republicans want to privatize Social Security, leaving the entitlement benefit to the whims of the market.

Challenger candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, running in competitive Congressional races were announcing their opposition to the rescue package even before the conclusion of the failed vote Monday afternoon — which may help to explain why the most vulnerable House incumbents, by and large, voted against the bill.

One Republican consultant advising House candidates said the haggling over the financial markets rescue package has created a juicy political opportunity for challengers. This operative “absolutely” plans to use the financial crisis and the fight over the rescue package to his clients’ advantage.

“This is a rare opportunity for challengers to get traction on an issue that everybody is up to speed on,” the GOP consultant said. “Incumbents are in a tough spot on this, and the timing for the vote couldn’t be worse.”

Challenger candidates who have come out against the rescue package are spread across ideological and geographical lines, although a majority of them appear to be running in conservative-leaning districts.

They include state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins (R), running against Rep. Nancy Boyda (D) in the conservative, heavily rural 2nd district of Kansas; wind energy executive Michael Skelly (D), who is running against Rep. John Culberson (R) in the majority-GOP, suburban Houston 7th district of Texas; and former state Speaker John Gard (R), who is in a rematch with Rep. Steve Kagen (D) in the conservative, Green Bay-area 8th district of Wisconsin.

Boyda, Culberson and Kagen all voted against the rescue package Monday, helping send it to a 228-205 defeat. Political consultants for both parties said it remains unclear exactly which party stands to benefit politically from the fight over the rescue package — even though a spate of recent polls have shown Democrats up and down the ballot gaining as voters focus almost exclusively on the economy.

Some of these consultants, while saying it’s a given that challengers must engage on the economy, conceded that they are hesitant to have their candidates discuss the rescue package or criticize incumbents for how they voted on the bill, as they are not yet sure how the issue cuts.

“Democratic candidates will definitely be talking about the financial crisis in ads,” one Democratic media consultant said. “But given the mood of the electorate right now, the bailout will be more of a defense issue than an offense one.”

Some House challengers appear willing to employ guerrilla tactics to get their points across on the economy. Kansas state Sen. Nick Jordan (R), who is challenging Rep. Dennis Moore (D), stood outside a fundraiser that Moore held with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in Mission, Kan., on Tuesday to discuss his views on the economic crisis.

Senate Republicans, after playing defense last week against Democratic attacks that they were responsible for the problems on Wall Street and the sour economy, began fighting back this week.

In North Carolina, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is up with an independent-expenditure television ad criticizing Democratic Senate nominee Kay Hagan’s record on fiscal issues and suggesting, sarcastically, that she is more fit for Wall Street than for Washington, D.C. Hagan is running a competitive race against Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R).

In New Hampshire, Sen. John Sununu (R) — running behind in his race against former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) — is up with a television ad that touts his attempts to pass regulations to strengthen the mortgage industry, charging that Shaheen and her Democratic allies have stood in the way of legislation that could have prevented the financial crisis.

“Five years ago, John Sununu wrote tough regulations for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Democrats blocked his bill, opposing restrictions on ‘risky investments,’” the voice-over says as Sununu’s ad opens. “Six months ago, Jeanne Shaheen still saw no risk, saying: ‘Let them use flexibility and common sense [to solve the mortgage crisis].’ Boy, Jeanne, that worked out well.”

The Shaheen campaign responded mockingly, noting that Sununu — not the former governor — has been serving in Congress in the midst of the economic downturn.

“It’s laughable that John Sununu is trying to point fingers at Jeanne Shaheen about the crisis on Wall Street when it’s John Sununu who has been in Congress for 12 years — John Sununu who sat on the Senate Banking Committee for five years,” Shaheen campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said.

Former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R), running for an open Colorado Senate seat against Rep. Mark Udall (D), also went up on television this week with an advertisement that lays the responsibility for the financial crisis directly at the feet of his opponent. On the Democratic side, Oregon state Speaker Jeff Merkley is up with a similar television spot in his bid to oust Sen. Gordon Smith (R).

Schaffer’s ad comes on the heels of a spot the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched Friday blaming the former Congressman for the state of the economy.

Democratic House campaigns are beginning to tether their GOP opponents to President Bush’s unsuccessful push to privatize Social Security, pointing out that retirees’ benefits could be imperiled if the stock market crashes. One Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ad that began running this week in Missouri’s open 9th district race blasts the Republican nominee, Blaine Luetkemeyer, on Social Security.

“It’s Wall Street’s roughest ride since the Great Depression, so step right up Blaine Luetkemeyer, an insurance executive worth over $2 million,” the narrator in the ad begins. “Maybe his retirement is secure, but Luetkemeyer supports privatizing Social Security, risking your retirement on the Wall Street roller coaster. So if you or a loved one depend on Social Security, hold on tight. Blaine Luetkemeyer’s privatization scheme will take your retirement on a risky ride.”

Campaign strategists are hesitant to predict how the financial crisis and the battle over the rescue package will ultimately play in Congressional races. But some of the polling available indicated that its Republicans who have suffered the most thus far.

In California’s solidly Republican 4th district just east of Sacramento, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Charlie Brown (D) led state Sen. Tom McClintock (R) 46 percent to 41 percent in the race to replace retiring Rep. John Doolittle (R).

In conservative Georgia, where the terrain was so difficult that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) recently pulled out his presidential campaign operation, a DSCC poll released Monday showed Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) ahead of former state Rep. Jim Martin (D) 37 percent to 34 percent. An automated SurveyUSA poll released Tuesday showed Chambliss, who had been considered a lock for a second term, with just a 2-point lead.

Both polls were conducted last week, during the height of the voter anxiety over the financial crisis. The McClintock campaign and the Chambliss campaign disputed the findings of the surveys, challenging their accuracy and methodology.

“The GOP was really suffering in all polls last week, all the way down to the House and even state legislative level, due to the Wall Street mess,” said a Republican consultant who is based in California.

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