By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
SUGAR LAND, Tex., Oct. 30 -- President Bush said terrorists will win if Democrats win and impose their policies on Iraq, as he and Vice President Cheney escalated their rhetoric Monday in an effort to turn out Republican voters in next week's midterm elections.
Democratic operatives continued to broaden the field of races they believe are competitive enough to merit last-minute investments, as the party's House election committee launched ads in typically conservative districts of Kentucky, Nebraska and Nevada. In the Senate battle, new public and private polls yesterday indicated very tight races in Tennessee, Virginia and Missouri, the last of which is shaping up as possibly the country's tightest contest.
Faced with potential GOP defeat in both chambers, Bush and Cheney aimed to avert that by convincing voters that they cannot risk giving the opposition party any power in Washington.
"However they put it, the Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses," Bush told a raucous crowd of about 5,000 GOP partisans packed in an arena at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, one of his stops Monday. "That's what's at stake in this election. The Democrat goal is to get out of Iraq. The Republican goal is to win in Iraq."
Democrats reacted sharply to the latest White House attacks. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said Bush "resorted to the same tired old partisan attacks in a desperate attempt to hold on to power." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said Bush is looking to retain a "rubber-stamp Republican Congress that has done nothing to change our failed Iraq policy."
Cheney, meanwhile, said in an interview with Fox News that he thinks insurgents in Iraq are timing their attacks to influence the U.S. elections.
"It's my belief that they're very sensitive of the fact that we've got an election scheduled," he said. Cheney said the insurgents believe "they can break the will of the American people," and "that's what they're trying to do."
The increasingly combative tone from the White House signaled a coordinated GOP effort to use every channel to remind conservatives why they should turn out to vote, despite what many say is their disenchantment with the Mark Foley page scandal, anger over escalating federal spending and anxiety over the course of the Iraq war. Bush held a telephone conference call with about 3,000 Republican local officials on Saturday to fire them up for a final get-out-the-vote push. On Monday, Bush invited Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity for a ride on Air Force One and an interview later; the presence of the conservative celebrity stirred its own buzz among the standing-room-only crowd at Georgia Southern. Bush is barnstorming this week before friendly Republicans after months of just raising money for GOP candidates.
But the president's travel schedule in the final week of the campaign is also a stark reminder of his political weakness in many parts of the country -- and in many swing districts -- where it is too dangerous for GOP candidates to be seen with Bush. After his rally in Georgia on Monday, Bush flew here to stump for the GOP candidate trying to succeed former House majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), who won his seat by 14 points two years ago before resigning amid the Jack Abramoff scandal. There was no sign of the man who once relished his Capitol Hill reputation as "The Hammer" on Monday's visit, which drew several thousand to an aircraft hangar festooned with a giant Texas flag.
The White House has been leaving it to surrogates to appear in swing areas, with first lady Laura Bush campaigning Saturday for Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) and press secretary Tony Snow appearing on behalf of Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.) among others on Monday.
"The fact that Republicans are working hard to hold on to one of the most Republican districts in the country -- that tells you the depth of the Republican struggles around the country," said Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
White House aides disputed this characterization, saying the Sugar Land race is a special case since DeLay resigned too late for the courts to allow the GOP to replace him on the ballot. Instead, Republicans are promoting Shelley Sekula Gibbs, a Houston City Council member and dermatologist, as a write-in candidate.
Sekula Gibbs is badly trailing former Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson in fundraising, though Cheney recently came here to raise money, and the National Republican Congressional Committee is spending more than $1 million on her behalf. But a poll published Monday by the Houston Chronicle showed the race statistically tied, even though Republicans acknowledge the difficulty of getting voters to write Sekula Gibbs's name on their ballots.
Sara Taylor, the White House political director, said the purpose of Bush's trip Monday was "to shine a spotlight" on the steps Republicans must take to give their candidate a chance to win. "We're going to focus the president's time on places where he can maximize Republican turnout," she added.
Democrats, meanwhile, believe they have the luxury of competing outside their usual strongholds. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is now funding ads in Kentucky's 3rd District, where challenger John Yarmuth is running against Rep. Anne M. Northup (R); in Nevada's 3rd District, where Tessa Hafen is running against Rep. Jon Porter (R); and in Nebraska's 3rd District, featuring rancher Scott Kleeb (D) against state legislator Adrian Smith (R) for an open seat.
In Georgia, Bush is trying to play a little bit of offense this week, appearing on behalf of GOP candidates in two of the few Democratic districts where Republicans have an opportunity to pick up a seat. The vast majority of competitive races around the country are in districts now held by Republicans, which is one reason Democrats are optimistic they can win the 15 seats necessary to gain a majority in the House.
Bush's rally Monday was on behalf of former Republican congressman Max Burns, who is in a close race to regain his seat from freshman Rep. John Barrow (D). On Tuesday, the president is slated to come back to the state for former representative Mac Collins, who is trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall. Both districts were redrawn by the Georgia legislature in 2005 and are now seen as more favorable to Republicans.
Unlike other Democrats, Barrow and Marshall have not sought to distance themselves far from the president. "I agree with George Bush on this one," Barrow said in a recent ad about tax reform.
Ferrel Guillory, who directs the program on southern politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Bush's popularity has not "tanked" as badly in the South as in the rest of the country. "Having the president in your district in the South is still probably a risk worth taking," he said.
The crowd at Georgia Southern seemed to respond most enthusiastically to Bush's most conservative lines, roaring for about 10 seconds after he criticized last week's ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court that gay couples are entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples. Bush said the ruling "raises doubt about the institution of marriage."
"We believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman and should be defended," Bush shouted.
Bush also drew a good response from an applause line he used in both Georgia and Texas: "We will not run from thugs and assassins."
In the interview with Hannity on the Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes," Bush said he believes the United States will one day be hit by another terrorist attack. Asked whether the country would be attacked again, Bush said, "I think so, and we've got to do everything we can to stop them."
Staff writer Michael Fletcher and washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report from Washington.