A Rush To Frame Views on Congress

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007

Democrats and Republicans are mounting a fierce battle to shape voter impressions of Congress during August's political lull, convinced that they must define the story line of the 2008 congressional election before voters are swamped by the presidential campaign.

The opening salvo of television and radio advertisements, automated calls and fundraising appeals is unusually intense this early in the election cycle, and it comes just seven months after the Democrats took control of Congress.

But lawmakers, pollsters and Congress watchers say it is not clear whether the Democrats have convinced the public that they can do the job an angry electorate handed them in November -- or whether, once again, all incumbents will be vulnerable next year, regardless of party.

With the presidential campaign sure to dominate news coverage in the coming months, party officials and proxy groups have become convinced that now is the time to frame public opinion and lock up political donors in ways that will carry the parties into the fall.

"There's a limited time period in which to brand the new Congress," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats' campaign arm. "The window will go into the fall, but by early next year, it will be closed."

Last week, the DCCC launched television ads highlighting the accomplishments of the new Congress and radio ads attacking vulnerable Republicans for their stands on Iraq and a Democratic children's health insurance bill. The House Republican campaign committee responded with radio ads attacking Democrats on ethics, taxes and federal spending. And groups allied with the parties have launched their own efforts.

"There's a sense that you can make anybody vulnerable, you can weaken any candidate no matter how strong he appears to be, by starting out early and beating the stuffing out of him," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan Congress watcher and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.

The contours of the 2008 campaign have already come into view, and the battle could prove to be a historical anomaly. On the one hand, back-to-back "wave" elections are rare, said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan congressional analyst and the editor of the Cook Political Report. Elections such as the one in 2006 -- which gave Democrats 30 new seats in the House, six in the Senate and control of both houses -- invariably sweep lawmakers to power in districts their party has no business controlling.

Rothenberg called those candidates "driftwood, thrown onto the beach and washed out with the next election." Having 42 freshman Democrats, many of them in Republican-leaning districts, would appear to offer the GOP a target-rich environment. The Cook Political Report this month singled out 13 vulnerable House Democrats, all but one of them freshmen.

But the factors that swept the Democrats to power -- anger at President Bush and distaste for the Iraq war -- have only intensified. The Cook Report also tagged 17 House Republicans as vulnerable, and one of them, Rep. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), as likely to leave.

A memo last week by Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling outfit, said that in a poll a generic Democratic candidate for Congress was beating a Republican, 51 to 42 percent. That lead held steady among all education levels, and it was wider among independents and young voters.

"If you look at nothing but the numbers, in terms of mood of the country, the popularity of the president, there's no question the environment has eroded for Republicans since November," said Neil Newhouse, a partner at the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies.

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