WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (search) hugged President Bush from one end of South Dakota to the other this summer. In his own campaign commercials.
The brief embrace might seem an odd claim on re-election for the man Republicans depict as obstructionist-in-chief for the president's congressional agenda. But Daschle is one of several candidates with a common political problem as Democrats nurse fragile hopes of gaining Senate control this fall.
From the South to South Dakota and Alaska, they are running in areas where Bush is popular — and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) not so much.
"The congressman is running his own race out here. ... He's not bringing any national people in," said Kristofer Eisenla, spokesman for Democratic Rep. Brad Carson (search) in Oklahoma, where Bush won 60 percent of the vote in 2000.
"The presidential race is largely separate" from Inez Tenenbaum's campaign in South Carolina, said Adam Kovacevich, a spokesman for the Democratic candidate in another state Kerry has written off.
Of the eight states with the most competitive Senate races, Kerry is seriously contesting only Florida and Colorado, effectively conceding North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Alaska.
Democrats and Republicans differ on the significance of the location of the key races. With five weeks remaining in the campaign, GOP candidates are struggling in Oklahoma, Alaska and other states where Bush will triumph easily.
"It's pretty irrelevant assuming that the Democratic candidate and the Democratic Party can get the turnout operations put together without presidential or national party funding," said Jim Jordan, former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
So far, the DSCC has transferred millions of dollars to state parties for get-out-the-vote operations — $1.7 million for Alaska, $1.4 million for Oklahoma and $825,000 for South Carolina.
"I think it's just an added factor to the benefit of our top-quality candidates," countered Sen. George Allen, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Already, Allen's committee is trying to turn Kerry into a liability for one Democratic candidate.
"Flip flop, flop flop. Between John Kerry and Tony Knowles, there's more flip-flopping than a sockeye (salmon) in Bristol Bay," says an NRSC ad criticizing Alaska's former Democratic governor.
Democrats must gain two seats to be assured of a 51-vote majority in the Senate. The parties are virtually certain to swap two of the 34 seats on the ballot — Democrats winning an open seat in Illinois while Republicans counter in Georgia, one of five Southern states where Democratic veterans are retiring.
Of the eight seats that remain most competitive, five are in Democratic hands and three belong to Republicans, and Democrats must win seven to gain an outright majority.
South Dakota holds the marquee Senate race of the campaign, and polls show a close race between Daschle and former GOP Rep. John Thune in a state that Bush carried by 22 percentage points in 2000.
The hug — two or three seconds in length — is a videotaped image of the embrace Daschle gave Bush when the president spoke to Congress shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Daschle's spokesman, Dan Pfeiffer, said the ad's message is that he "will work with the president when the president is right but oppose him when he is wrong." Daschle's latest commercial criticizes the administration for failing to provide adequate drought relief, while faulting Thune for not standing up to Bush on the issue.
The Republican Party demanded unsuccessfully that Daschle stop airing the ad, arguing it left a false impression.
Thune's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, says Daschle "is running from the arms of Michael Moore to the arms of George Bush," referring to the liberal filmmaker whose name was heartily booed at the Republican National Convention.
Political fortunes have ebbed and flowed for both parties in the past several weeks:
— Democratic chances of winning a seat in Pennsylvania faded when GOP Sen. Arlen Specter (search) survived a primary challenge from a conservative, then won the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO.
— Democratic hopes of a serious challenge to Sen. Kit Bond (search) in Missouri, never strong, became a casualty of Kerry's decision to halt advertising in the state.
— The Republican senatorial committee reported $22.5 million cash on hand as of the end of August, compared with the Democrats' $10.5 million. Hoping to use its advantage, the GOP signaled plans to spend more than $1 million in a late bid to upset Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold.
— To the relief of GOP strategists, former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez (search), who is Cuban-born, won the nomination for an open seat in the presidential battleground of Florida. He will test Betty Castor in a race slow to develop in a hurricane-battered state.
Yet Republicans have concerns of their own.
— Tom Coburn (search), an obstetrician and former GOP House member, faces unexpected scrutiny following his acknowledgment that he sterilized a patient several years ago without written consent. At the same time, Carson opened a new line of attack with an ad that faults his rival for voting against federal disaster aid in the wake of 1999 tornados that killed 44 and destroyed more than 10,000 homes in the state.
— Polls show GOP candidates Pete Coors (search) in Colorado and Rep. Richard Burr (search) in North Carolina trailing. They also indicate that Tenenbaum, who fell behind Rep. Jim DeMint (search) this summer and reshuffled her campaign, has begun cutting into his lead with criticism of his call for a national sales tax to replace the income tax.