WASHINGTON – Gathering in Washington for their annual winter convention, Democrats put on a brave election-year face even though President Bush's post-Sept. 11 popularity is soaring around 80 percent in the polls.
"If we learned anything from last year's campaign, it's that support for Bush's successful execution of the war does nothing for Republican candidates," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "Just ask Mark Earley and Brent Schundler."
Last year, Republicans former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley and Jersey City, New Jersey Mayor Brent Schundler were soundly defeated in their gubernatorial races. But the president never really campaigned for them, Republican analysts argue, and odds had been in the Democrats favor all along.
This year, Democrats hope to trap Republicans in a losing battle by pinning blame on them for the recession that started last March.
"We've gone from an economy that was robust, that created the surplus, that created full employment, to an economy literally months later where we have high unemployment, an economy that's staggering right now and a deficit situation in our budget. People understand that and they're going to vote to get rid of that kind of system," said Jim Pederson, Arizona Democratic party chair.
But Republicans in Texas for their own winter meeting have a counterattack. Right after being elected the new party chairman Marc Racicot accused Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in particular of preventing economic recovery by blocking the president's plan.
"Americans don't want partisan attacks. They want the Senate majority leader to stop stalling and let the Senate vote on the president's bipartisan economic stimulus package," Racicot said.
The Republican riff quite simply is that Democrats would tax and spend the nation into a deeper hole. Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, has been instrumental in crafting the GOP's summary of the Democrats' economic approach.
"Some on the other side, they have a plan we ought to raise taxes in a recession," Rove said, arguing basic economics that tax hikes are bad for an economic downturn.
As the GOP tries to protect its five-seat majority in the House and win back the Senate this year, they see several strengths beyond the president's popularity. Most polls show the public prefers the GOP economic approach over Democrats and many of the closest races nationwide are in states Bush carried in 2000.
Democrats, however, see more than just the recession working for them. In the Senate, 14 Democrats are up for re-election to the GOP's 20, so Republicans have more at risk. Democrats are ahead in the polls on issues like prescription drugs, health care, and reforming Social Security, and they point out that history is in their favor.
"Since 1862, the president's party has lost seats in every first term election except (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt's," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-New York, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.