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Democrats shaping battle plan against Republicans for November

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010

Architects of President Obama's 2008 victory are braced for potentially sizable Democratic losses in November's midterm elections. But they say voters' unease about a GOP takeover will help their party maintain congressional majorities.

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"I think the prospect of a Republican takeover -- while not likely, but plausible -- will be very much part of the dynamic in October, and I think that will help us with turnout and some of this enthusiasm gap," said David Plouffe, who was Obama's campaign manager two years ago and is helping to oversee Democratic efforts this fall. Still, he put all Democrats on notice, saying: "We'd better act as a party as if the House and the Senate and every major governor's race is at stake and in danger, because they could be."

Plouffe and other Democratic strategists say Obama will play an important role in making the case that the Republican Party is one of obstruction and indifference. But they think the outcome in November will depend as much on the skill of candidates in mobilizing potential supporters who are now disinclined to vote.

Struggling economy

Independent projections show Republicans in range of winning the 39 additional seats they need to regain power in the House. Taking control of the Senate appears more difficult: Republicans would have to win virtually all the competitive races. But Democrats still are likely to return in January with their majority in the Senate significantly diminished.

Economic discontent remains the biggest threat to the Democrats' political prospects this fall. The issue has become more acute with growing fears that the economy has lost steam in recent weeks. Friday's unemployment report will provide more evidence.

"I think that as long as the economy is struggling, the economy is going to be a decisive issue," White House senior adviser David Axelrod said. "The question is whether people believe at the end of the day [that] turning backward to the policies that got us into the disaster is really the answer. That's a debate we're going to have."

Obama provided a taste of that on Wednesday in Racine, Wis., when he chastised House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) for saying that the financial regulatory reform bill was like "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon." The president will step up his political activity later this summer.

His team also said it must aggressively rebut Republicans' arguments that the president's policies have led to excessive growth of government spending and regulation. "If we allow a Republican Party that took a $237 billion surplus and turned it into a $1.3 trillion deficit over eight years to masquerade as the party of fiscal responsibility, then shame on us," Axelrod said.

Obama's strategists have been analyzing the state of the electorate and have concluded that the path for Democrats is treacherous but that there is room for improvement before November. They must woo back some independent voters who have defected since 2008 while boosting turnout beyond historical patterns for midterm elections among the millions of new or irregular voters who were energized by Obama's campaign.

At this point, GOP voters are significantly more motivated to cast ballots in November. Plouffe said that, because there is little likelihood that Republican enthusiasm will wane before then, "we have a lot less margin for error."

Still, Obama strategists see a variety of ways to offset the GOP's current advantages. Democratic incumbents have yet to tell their stories fully to voters in their districts, and most have not begun to challenge their GOP opponents directly. They also believe that the intensity of opposition to the new health-care reform law is slowly diminishing.

Maximizing victories

Obama faces questions about whether he and his team are more focused on his 2012 reelection bid than they are on ensuring his party maintains as much strength in Congress as possible. His advisers say he is fully committed to maximizing Democratic victories in November.

"I think by the time this thing is through, no one's going to say, 'Gee, I don't think he put a good effort into it,' " Axelrod said.

The president plans an extensive round of fundraising for Democrats this summer. He will also ramp up his activity as the party's chief politician. But the weight of holding the party's majorities may fall more heavily on candidates.

The Democratic National Committee has begun a program designed to increase turnout in November among the first-time and irregular voters who backed Obama in 2008. But advisers say many of these voters won't show up in November unless candidates make personal connections with them.

One way will be by raising the prospect of a GOP takeover. Unlike 1994, when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years, "it's not hard to remind people of what the Republican experiment will be," Plouffe said. "It's very fresh in their mind."

Democrats plan to highlight success stories, but they are being told they also must make the case against their opponents. "The key is to go into these districts, these battleground districts, and win them on the ground, win them on the attack with aggressive campaigns, win them in field, one by one," Axelrod said.


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