Anxious GOP Focuses on Not Losing Senate

President Bush appears with Sen. James M. Talent in Missouri, one of several tossup states in the battle for control of the Senate.
President Bush appears with Sen. James M. Talent in Missouri, one of several tossup states in the battle for control of the Senate. (By Mark Schiefelbein -- Bloomberg News)
By Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 4, 2006

Republicans entered the campaign's final weekend yesterday desperately trying to keep control of the Senate, with three or four tossup races likely to determine whether the GOP can cling to power there even as it sees its hold on the House eroding.

Strong public opposition to the Iraq war continues to hurt Republicans in many key races, but the Bush administration struck a defiant tone, signaling that the election results will not influence its strategy. Tuesday's balloting might influence Congress, Vice President Cheney said in an interview with ABC News, "but the president's made clear what his objective is. It's victory in Iraq. And it's full speed ahead on that basis. And that's exactly what we're going to do."

Cheney was responding in part to sharp criticism launched in a Vanity Fair article by two of the Iraq invasion's strongest advocates: Richard N. Perle of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee and former Pentagon official Kenneth Adelman. Perle said the administration's war policy had become dysfunctional, adding: "You have to hold the president responsible. . . . I don't think he realized the extent of the opposition within his own administration, and the disloyalty."

With polls showing that the war may strongly influence many voters' decisions, analysts in both parties agreed that Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee are the keys to controlling the 100-member Senate, where Democrats need to gain six seats to claim the majority. Nonpartisan handicappers said few undecided voters remain in those advertisement-drenched states.

Analysts yesterday gave a slight advantage to Republican nominee Bob Corker in Tennessee -- largely because he is not an incumbent -- and to Democrat James Webb in Virginia, because Sen. George Allen (R) has failed to lock up his reelection in this anti-GOP environment. The final, crucial card could fall in Missouri, they said, where Sen. James M. Talent (R) and Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill have been neck and neck for weeks, unable to break away despite massive spending on positive and negative TV ads and jockeying over a contentious ballot initiative.

Democrats "should pick up five to seven seats," said Stuart Rothenberg, who writes a nonpartisan political newsletter from Washington. If he had to guess, he said, "I expect the Democrats to win six seats," but the outcome is far from certain.

The picture in the House remains grim for Republicans, with analysts from both parties predicting that Democrats will pick up the 15 seats they need for the majority, and possibly twice that number. The Senate, once thought beyond the Democrats' reach, is the focal point of the campaign's final sprint.

With Democrats slightly favored to knock off Republican senators in Rhode Island and Montana -- and more solidly favored in Pennsylvania and Ohio -- the party that wins two of the three tossup states should prevail, the analysts said. Maryland and Michigan are conceivable Republican upsets, and Arizona possibly could fall to Democrats, but most handicappers consider such results unlikely.

President Bush made two stops yesterday in Missouri for Talent, who has tried for weeks to pull away from McCaskill, the state auditor. Bush told crowds in Springfield and Joplin that he needs Talent to help him stop Democrats from raising taxes, blocking conservative judges, undermining counterterrorism efforts and retreating from Iraq. He said Democrats have no plan for victory over terrorists, adding a call-and-response riff to his basic stump speech.

"If you happen to bump into a Democrat candidate, you might want to ask this simple question: 'What's your plan?' " the president said. "If they say they want to protect the homeland but oppose the Patriot Act, ask them this question: 'What's your plan?' " The crowds echoed his refrain.

The president plans to campaign for House and gubernatorial candidates through Monday, but yesterday marked his last scheduled appearance with a senator in a highly contested race. In some states, lawmakers from both parties agree that Bush's visits hurt Republicans more than help them.

Bush's appearance in Missouri was meant to inspire more Republicans to vote Tuesday, but a ballot initiative on stem cell research -- which has drawn extensive attention and spending -- should benefit McCaskill, said Stephen S. Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. The ballot question would ensure that any form of stem cell research that is legal in the United States cannot be restricted in Missouri. McCaskill supports the measure, which has polled well, and Talent opposes it.

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