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In Va.'s 5th, incumbent Democrat Tom Perriello sees voter frustration firsthand

"They bail out these lending institutions. They bail out those auto manufacturers," he said. "Where's my bailout? Me and my children and my grandchildren are going to have to pay for these bailouts."

He is far from alone. Across the country, with signs showing that the economic recovery may be sputtering, nearly four in 10 people now tell pollsters that they or someone in their family has lost a job in the past year.

Their circumstances are not the only thing that drives their disaffection with Washington.

'They're being left out'

"People are really smart," said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. "They know the economic collapse happened before Obama. They hold lots of people responsible, and they're realistic enough to know you can't change things overnight. People are more angry at Washington being broken, and the wrong people being helped."

Peter Hart, another Democratic pollster, agreed. "All they see is they're being left out of the process," he said.

This was never going to be an easy election for Perriello or most of the other 47 Democrats running for reelection in districts that John McCain carried two years ago. And it is particularly treacherous for those 18 newcomers from conservative districts who washed up on Capitol Hill in the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008.

Come January, many of them may be gone. As one fatalistic Democratic official put it, "They are basically living in rented territory."

These are the larger dynamics that have historically come into play in midterm elections, which almost always see a first-term president's party losing seats.

"This is a classic," GOP pollster Bill McInturff said. "Midterm elections are about hitting the brake after you hit the gas."

Strategists in both parties know that once the campaign season enters its final stretch on Labor Day, it will be difficult to change the course of the election. So Democratic House leaders sent their members home for August with pocket cards of talking points headlined "WE CAN'T GO BACK" and a list of weekly messages to push.

"We want the power of all of our voices to convey these messages, so we ask you to plan public events and media interactions in your district around weekly themes -- if they work for you," the leaders wrote in a memo to their troops.

Last week was "Make It in America" week, to be followed by "Protecting Social Security Week," "Consumer Protection Week," "Small Business Week" and "Troops & Veterans Week." The week of Sept. 6 will bring a reprise of "Make It in America" week.

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