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McCain's Troubles Afflicting Other Races

Supporters scream for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in Fayetteville, N.C.
Supporters scream for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in Fayetteville, N.C. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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When McCain clinched the nomination earlier this year, GOP leaders in Congress hailed him as the best possible standard-bearer because he had crafted an image independent of Bush. Leaders urged incumbents and challengers alike to lash themselves to McCain's brand.

Instead, the dynamics of the presidential race have created opportunities for Democrats that even they were not anticipating, particularly after the financial meltdown began in mid-September.

In Georgia, where Bush won by 17 points in 2004, Obama has cut McCain's lead roughly in half since Labor Day. At the same time, former state representative Jim Martin (D) has closed in on Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

In New York's 26th District, internal GOP polls show McCain trailing Obama by a narrow margin, sources said. Bush won the Buffalo-based district by 12 percentage points in 2004. The race to replace retiring Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.) is considered a tossup.

In Virginia's 2nd District around Virginia Beach, Bush won in 2004 by 16 points, more than in 2000. In recent private GOP polling, McCain is ahead of Obama by two percentage points, and Rep. Thelma Drake (R) has gone from being favored to fighting for her seat.

On the stump, McCain implicitly acknowledges the GOP's pending collapse in congressional elections by suggesting a vote for him is a check against unbridled Democratic power. On Monday in Cleveland he called Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) a "dangerous threesome."

House and Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are arguing that it is they, rather than McCain, who are the only check against Democrats. "Without a strong conservative leader, the Obama/Pelosi/Reid machine will steamroll a host of new taxes and left-wing social policy across the Senate Floor. There'd be an effective 'gag order' on independents and conservatives," McConnell wrote to supporters.

In a memo issued last week, Karen Hanretty, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, did not mention McCain once. Citing a "toxic political environment," Hanretty said her party faces "a situation Republicans simply have never experienced in congressional races."

"It's kind of a perfect storm," Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) said last week while campaigning in his suburban Detroit district.

Knollenberg, a 15-year incumbent who faces an uphill battle against a former state senator, has no support from the top of the ticket since the McCain campaign abandoned Michigan a month ago. The NRCC announced last week it would not finance ads there in the final days before the elections.

Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr., Chris Cillizza and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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