With Campaigning, a Preview

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

NASHVILLE, Aug. 30 -- Sandwiching politics between anniversary commemorations for the two pivotal events of his tenure, President Bush campaigned Wednesday on behalf of two Republican candidates facing unexpectedly strong Democratic opposition in Southern border states dominated in recent years by the GOP.

A day after visiting New Orleans to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Bush flew to Little Rock to appear at a closed-door fundraiser for former congressman Asa Hutchinson, who is trailing state Attorney General Mike Beebee in his bid to become Arkansas governor. After little more than three hours on the ground, Bush moved on to Nashville to help Bob Corker collect funds for his contest against Democrat Harold Ford Jr. for Tennessee's open Senate seat.

Appearing before a friendly crowd of about 500 GOP partisans at a downtown Nashville hotel, Bush previewed some of the themes he will strike at an address Thursday in Salt Lake City at the American Legion's national convention.

Terrorism and Iraq loom large in the coming midterm elections, and the GOP majorities in both chambers of Congress are at risk. In many of the most competitive races, Republicans are still hoping the public trusts them more to defeat terrorism, and Bush highlighted the issues on behalf of Corker, who is bidding to fill the seat of retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Bush offered an impassioned defense of his Iraq policy, linking the war to the battle against terrorists and once again rejecting the growing clamor from Democrats -- and some Republicans -- to begin setting a timetable for withdrawing the more than 130,000 U.S. troops. While acknowledging that many Americans are troubled by the violence in Iraq, he said "amazing progress" is being made and said defeating the insurgency in Iraq is essential to preventing terrorists from coming to America.

If America left Iraq "before the job is done," he said, it would be a "major defeat" for the United States and would create a "terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East."

The Tennessee Senate race is shaping up as one of the most interesting this year, with Ford mounting a fierce effort to become the first African American since Reconstruction to be elected to the Senate from the South. Tennessee is a conservative state, and political analysts here say Bush's popularity has not fallen as steeply as it has in other states.

But Ford has been making inroads by stressing moderate positions on social and fiscal issues. He has supported the war in Iraq but told the Nashville Tennessean this week that he does not share a "stay the course" philosophy with the president.

On Corker's campaign Web site, he says: "We must complete our mission in Iraq, supporting the new emerging democratic government until Iraqi forces are prepared to defend their country."

The GOP believes its chances of holding on to the seat improved after Corker's victory in this month's primary over two more conservative candidates, although the Ford campaign released a poll last week suggesting it had a small lead. Other independent analysts are skeptical of those numbers.

John G. Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who specializes in campaign advertising, said Ford is trying to "turn the race into a referendum on the president, and some of Corker's moves have played into this," including Wednesday night's fundraiser.

But Geer said he doubts the fundraiser will hurt Corker too much, especially since GOP officials said they collected more than $1.5 million for the campaign and for the Tennessee GOP.

Just the fact that the race appears to be so close is bad news for the Republicans, according to Geer and other analysts. A switch of six seats would give the Democrats control of the Senate for the first time since 2002.

"Democrats are going to have a good year in the Senate," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Tennessee is the firewall between a Democratic majority and a Republican majority. If this state goes Democratic, it would likely mean the Democrats will be in the majority."

Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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