Democratic candidates blast GOP on education issues to rally independent votes

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By Philip Rucker
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 12:39 PM

In search of an issue that will stop independent voters from rushing to the GOP, Democratic congressional candidates are attacking Republicans for wanting to abolish the Education Department and cut funding for federal student loans.

In more than three dozen Senate and House races, Democrats are seizing upon the issue, highlighting it in television advertisements and on the stump, to try to cast the Republicans as far outside the political mainstream.

Eliminating the Education Department has been a staple of the small-government tea party agenda this year, and a number of Republican candidates endorsed the idea during primary battles.

Some have retreated from those statements, but Democrats believe that emphasizing them could resonate with moderates and serve as a rallying cry for young voters.

Democratic officials in Washington are encouraging the party's candidates to play up these differences on the campaign trail this week, with national media focusing on education policy and President Obama beginning his effort to rally college students.

"What you have is Republican candidates taking the extreme tea party position of abolishing the Department of Education, and we don't think that will sit well in many of these moderate suburban districts," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

By highlighting such differences and framing campaigns as choices between two candidates, Democrats are trying to prevent the midterm elections from being a national referendum on Obama's handling of the economy. For weeks, Democrats have been going after Republican opponents who have publicly questioned the constitutionality of Social Security, Medicare and other federal entitlement programs. But those attacks do not appear to have made meaningful differences in competitive races.

Republican strategists said they believe the attacks on education policy will not gain traction because voters are almost singularly focused on the economy and jobs - an area where Democrats have struggled to break through.

"Democrats have no national message, nothing that resonates with independent voters, and as a result this is what they've been reduced to doing," said Ken Spain, communications director at the National Republican Campaign Committee. "When the unemployment rate in your district is 10 percent or higher, voters prefer talking about issues, not be distracted by clear acts of desperation."

A Pew Research Center poll last week found that among probable voters, independents favor Republicans over Democrats by 49 percent to 36 percent.

In Colorado, Sen. Michael Bennet (D) is assailing his Republican challenger, Ken Buck, for having said repeatedly during the primary that the federal government should not be involved in education or in the business of providing student loans.

Bennet's campaign aired a 60-second ad with footage, obtained by a Democratic tracker, of Buck saying, "We don't need a Department of Education," and, "I don't think our Founding Fathers ever intended for the federal government to have student loans."

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