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GOP Strategists Whisper Fears Of Greater Losses in November

GOP strategists worry that any bump from vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin won't be enough to prevent losses.
GOP strategists worry that any bump from vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin won't be enough to prevent losses. (By Phelan M. Ebenhack -- Associated Press)

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By Chris Cillizza and Shailagh Murray
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer and Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

With the party already struggling to generate enthusiasm for its brand, Republican strategists fear that an outpouring of public anger generated by Congress's struggle to pass a rescue package for the financial industry may contribute to a disaster at the polls for the GOP in November.

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"The crisis has affected the entire ticket," said Jan van Lohuizen, a Republican consultant who handled the polling for President Bush's reelection campaign. "The worse the state's economy, the greater the impact."

Republicans are trying to defend at least 18 House seats in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, economic trouble spots that double as election battlegrounds. Rising unemployment, the meltdown in the housing market, and a credit crunch besieging consumers and manufacturers alike were factors in Sen. John McCain's decision Thursday to pull campaign resources out of Michigan. The McCain campaign's exit from the state leaves a pair of vulnerable Republicans, Reps. Tim Walberg and Joe Knollenberg, with a weakened party infrastructure heading into Nov. 4. Attempting to sound optimistic, Knollenberg, who opposed the bailout bill on Monday but supported a revised version yesterday, said simply, "I am going to fight harder."

In the Senate, where Democrats have been on offense all year as they try to attain a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority, Republican incumbents are suddenly teetering in North Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia because of the economic crisis, according to several GOP strategists closely tracking the contests.

The pessimism in the GOP ranks reflects a striking shift in momentum in the four weeks since the Republican National Convention, when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made her national debut and rallied conservatives, helping to fuel the perception that longer-shot Democratic targets were drifting out of reach.

"If you turn the clock back two or two and half weeks, you could make a plausible argument that if a couple of things go our way we will lose three to four Senate races," said one Republican strategist. "Now we will lose six to eight." Polling in most Senate races over the past 14 days has shown a five-point decline for the Republican candidate, the strategist said.

The picture in the House is similar. The generic ballot test -- a traditional measure of broad voter attitudes -- has also moved decisively in Democrats' direction in recent days. The latest NBC-Wall Street Journal and Associated Press polls showed voters favoring a generic Democratic candidate for Congress over a generic Republican by 13 points, while a recent Time magazine poll gave Democrats a 46 percent to 36 percent edge.

GOP operatives said the party's declining fortunes are rooted in a series of events over the past two weeks, including McCain's decision to suspend his campaign in order to help broker a deal on the rescue plan and Republican opposition that doomed the bill in a House vote on Monday. Those incidents helped reinforce voter impressions that Washington is broken and that Republicans bear the brunt of the blame, the party insiders said.

In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News national poll, more than half of all voters said they were "very concerned" that the failure of the first bailout vote would cause a "severe economic decline." By a ratio of 2 to 1, they blamed the legislations' defeat on Republicans.

Neil Newhouse, a partner in the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, echoed van Lohuizen's sentiment. "The bailout crisis has had a corrosive effect on the national political environment, and that impacts not just John McCain, but GOP candidates up and down the ticket," he said.

The proximity to the election added to the chaos on Capitol Hill this week as lawmakers sought to pass a $700 billion package to stabilize banks and financial markets. In the House, most vulnerable Republicans opposed the version that failed on Monday, as well as the revamped legislation that passed easily yesterday. But in the Senate, which voted Wednesday, just two vulnerable Republicans, Sens. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.), opposed the bill (along with the only Democrat who is seen as endangered, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu).

Seven Republicans who are being targeted for defeat by Democrats backed the plan: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Ted Stevens (Alaska); Norm Coleman (Minn.); Gordon Smith (Ore.), Susan Collins (Maine) and John E. Sununu (N.H.).


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