WASHINGTON – President Bush is reaching out to citizens in more than half the states with recorded phone messages urging them to vote Republican, while Democrats are airing millions of dollars in ads in Texas hoping to capture the top election prizes in Bush's home state.
With control of Congress and many governorships at stake, the political parties are spending millions this month hoping to sway the final election before a ban on big political donations from corporations and unions takes effect.
The money is fueling door-to-door visits, phone banks, mass mailings and radio and TV ads aimed at winning over the undecided and making sure supporters show up at the polls Nov. 5.
"There's money being spent in every kind of persuasive activity you could imagine in American politics,'' said Karl Struble, a political consultant trying to help Democrat Tim Johnson win re-election to the Senate in South Dakota.
"Every little bit matters. This is going to come down to a few thousand votes,'' Struble said, laying out the stakes in South Dakota's race, which will help decide control of the Senate.
With dollars getting tighter down the stretch, the parties are monitoring the polls and their checkbooks with equal attention, looking for signs of where to put in or pull out money based on the changing political fortunes of candidates.
"The most difficult thing is to figure out which ones are making a last-minute positive break where limited resources will make a difference,'' said Alec Poitevint, a Republican National Committee member from Georgia.
For instance, the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association planned to give the state party just $1 million to $2 million in California, where Republican Bill Simon has been plagued by missteps in his uphill fight against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
States with tight Senate races are attracting many of the party ad dollars: each major party plans to spend at least $2 million in Missouri, South Dakota, Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas and New Hampshire from Labor Day to Election Day.
Each party is also expected to spend $2 million or more in that period advertising in Bush's home state of Texas, where the governorship, a Senate seat and several close House races are among the election prizes.
Some congressional candidates once deemed hot prospects are now finding themselves moving off their party's list for last-minute money.
In Oregon, Democrat Bill Bradbury is hoping to regain enough ground in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Gordon Smith to rekindle party contributions to his race. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ran ads on Bradbury's behalf last spring but hasn't this fall, campaign spokesman Neel Pender said.
Bradbury's momentum was hurt considerably by a recent poll showing him 20 points behind, Pender said.
"I think what they're looking at is reality,'' said Pender, on leave as Oregon Democratic Party executive director to work on Bradbury's campaign. "They've got limited resources, and Gordon Smith has spent $7-plus million reinventing himself more times than Madonna.''
The DSCC also has not been airing ads recently in Tennessee or Maine. Strategists in both parties say former Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander seems to have locked up the race for Tennessee's open Senate seat, while Republican Sen. Susan Collins seems certain to survive her challenge from Democrat Chellie Pingree.
In more than 25 states, including South Dakota, the GOP is telephoning voters who have requested absentee ballots and playing the recorded voice of Bush, asking them to vote Republican.
"Once you receive your ballot I hope you will support our great Republican candidates,'' Bush says in one recording. "They are working to make America stronger, safer and better. I appreciate your support of my agenda.''
In all, 15 to 20 House races are close enough to make the hot sheet for party spending, including incumbent-vs.-incumbent matchups in Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, and races in Indiana, Georgia, Iowa, Colorado, Maryland, Texas, South Dakota and Minnesota.
Senate races that Democratic and GOP strategists and consultants interviewed by The Associated Press consistently counted in the top tier for the final wave of party spending include those in South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, Colorado, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Texas and New Jersey, where former Sen. Frank Lautenberg recently replaced Sen. Bob Torricelli as the Democrat facing Republican Doug Forrester.
Republicans and Democrats alike say the parties may have to make tough decisions about how hard they will fight on the air in New Jersey and Texas in the final days, simply because both are so expensive.
To reach every New Jersey voter, for example, ad buys must include the New York City and Philadelphia markets. Democratic ad consultant Struble estimated TV time in South Dakota's biggest market, Sioux Falls, costs roughly one-fourtieth as much as in New York.