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A Rush To Frame Views on Congress

"But," he added, "that misses the point. The political environment for the '08 election has yet to be settled."

Republicans are hoping that once the party's presidential nominee is chosen, the drag of an unpopular president will fade. And if troops begin coming home from Iraq, the war issue could drop in significance as well.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, called that "a prayer, not a strategy," promising that the Democrats will pin Bush to whomever the Republicans nominate. But Republican and Democratic operatives are designing their campaigns as if the political cloud over the GOP will lift by November 2008.

And the mud is already being slung.

Democrats have been using traffic reporters on Florida radio shows to castigate Reps. C.W. Bill Young, Vern Buchanan and Tom Feeney for voting against "lowering seniors' Medicare deductibles and co-payments." The same tactic is being used to tell New Jersey voters that Rep. H. James Saxton "voted against providing health care for 5 million uninsured children," and 12 other Republicans are being rapped for supporting "George Bush's failed policy in Iraq."

An automated phone call, recorded by Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, is blanketing Baton Rouge, trying to turn a wave of African American refugees from Hurricane Katrina against 11-term Republican Richard H. Baker.

Republican radio ads are attacking Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) over ethics allegations that have attracted the attention of the FBI, even though those allegations did not stop Mollohan from winning 64 percent of his district's vote last year. Recent news reports tying the family of Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (Pa.) to a bankrupt company that he had supplied with federal money has yielded another Republican attack ad, though the 12-term Democrat won 72 percent of the vote in November.

National Republican Congressional Committee radio spots have also gone after Indiana freshman Joe Donnelly for giving "union organizers more power to intimidate employees" and for voting "for outrageous pork-barrel spending on peanut storage and transporting tropical fish."

Freshman Chris Carney (D-Pa.) has been accused of supporting "one of the largest tax hikes in American history," and freshman Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) was slammed for "taking over $190,000 from special interest committees and lobbyists" after campaigning to "get lobbyist money and special interest money out of elections."

"Under this NRCC, we made a commitment to going on the offensive at the local level in a way that hasn't been done before," said spokesman Ken Spain. "We're not afraid to point the finger back at them."

Privately, however, Republican campaign strategists remain downbeat. One strategist with close ties to House Republicans agreed that the political environment probably will brighten for his party next year, but by then, it might be too late -- the malaise has severely dampened fundraising and hurt candidate recruitment. The DCCC has a 10-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage over its Republican rival, and that is likely to grow.

Complicating the Republican strategy is a number of retirements, as veteran Republicans decide that life in the minority is not worth staying in Washington. Already, former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Reps. Ray LaHood (Ill.), Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr. (Miss.) and Deborah Pryce (Ohio) have announced that they will not seek reelection, opening up tempting Democratic targets and leaving cash-strapped Republicans to defend districts they can ill afford to spend money in.

GOP aides said last week that they expect Renzi, whose family business was recently raided by the FBI, to also retire. And Democrats are watching still more targets, including the districts of Reps. Ralph Regula (Ohio) and Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), who is preparing a Senate bid if John W. Warner (R) retires.

For Republicans, the Senate could be even worse, even though they need only one more seat to regain the majority. The retirement of Wayne Allard (Colo.) has already given the Democrats a good shot at a GOP seat. Warner's uncertain future has Democrats urging former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner to prepare a bid. And antiwar sentiments are imperiling Republican Sens. John E. Sununu (N.H.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Gordon Smith (Ore.), Rothenberg said.


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