WASHINGTON – A week before voters decide which party will control Congress, Democrats have unleashed a pricey and far-reaching ad campaign meant to directly link Republican candidates to President Bush's Iraq policy.
The ad, criticizing GOP candidates who have followed the president's lead, are set to air in Connecticut, New Mexico, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Iowa and other areas this week.
"Rick O'Donnell. He's George Bush's candidate for Congress. O'Donnell wanted to send 75,000 more troops to Iraq," says an ad in Colorado's 7th Congressional District in suburban Denver. O'Donnell is trying to win the open seat previously held by Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez, who is running for governor.
"Despite a war gone wrong and no plan for victory politicians like Rob Simmons keep voting to stay the course again and again, following George Bush's failed leadership no matter what the cost," is the accusation against three-term Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut, one of three Republican House members in that state in danger of losing a seat.
Dave Reichert "just sides with Bush on Iraq," says the announcer in the ad against the Washington state representative, one of only three Republicans in the state's nine-member delegation.
Those are just some of the roughly 36 House seats that could change party hands on Nov. 7. Democrats need 15 seats to win the House majority.
"The mood and the signs are coming together for at least a 15 margin," said Democratic strategist Michael Meehan. "That's now sort of the bottom number here."
Bush is trying to make sure that doesn't happen. Out on the campaign trail several days this week, the president is pushing GOP leadership in the Iraq war, suggesting that a Democratic majority in Congress would lead to retreat and defeat.
"The only way to protect America, which is our most important job, is to stay on the offense and bring (terrorists) to justice before they can hurt us again," Bush told a crowd in Sugarland, Texas, where he campaigned Monday for Houston councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, a write-in candidate for the seat vacated by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
Democrats, Bush said at a rally in Georgia earlier in the day, have "come up with a lot of creative ways to describe leaving Iraq before the job is done. ... However they put it, the Democrat approach to Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses."
Taking time out from his campaign schedule, the president, who is not on the ballot, told FOX News' Sean Hannity that the war in Iraq is part of an ideological standoff. He insisted his administration understands the only way to defeat the ideology of hate in Iraq is with an ideology of hope, a message that faces an increasingly skeptical American public.
"There were people who said we couldn't succeed after World War II, we couldn't succeed after the Cold War, and fortunately the leaders then didn't listen to the pessimists. We've had pessimists throughout our history say America can't do things. What the people have got to understand that I'm optimistic that once again we will do what's necessary to protect our country," Bush said.
At Georgia Southern University, where Bush spoke on behalf of former Rep. Max Burns to an audience of about 5,000 people, the president warned of dark times under a Democratic House, and cited two bills opposed by a majority of Democrats.
"When it came time to renew the Patriot Act, more than 75 percent — 75 percent of the House Democrats voted against it. When it came time to vote on whether or not the CIA continue its program to detain and question captured terrorists, almost 80 percent of the House Democrats voted against it," Bush said.
Vice President Cheney on Monday echoed the president's charges against Democrats.
"I don't see how you can fight and win this War on Terror if you don't give our agents the capacity to question detainees," Cheney told FOX News' Neil Cavuto.
But public opinion polls show widespread public dissatisfaction with the war, giving Democrats the confidence they need to battle the president blow for blow.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reacted to Bush by saying the president shouldn't be arguing for continuing down the same path in Iraq on the same day that the Pentagon released news of the 100th U.S. soldier to died there this month.
"On a day when the United States reached a grim milestone in Iraq, President Bush resorted to the same tired old partisan attacks in a desperate attempt to hold onto power and avoid accountability for his mistakes," Reid said.
Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added: "There's a big national debate in this country about the direction of this war set by President Bush, Defense Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, and Democrats think we need to change that policy."
Republicans, however, are hardly ready to concede. Among the seats they now feel confident of retaining is the Florida 16th District, which had previously been held by a scandalized Mark Foley. Bush carried the district 54-46 percent in 2004, and Republicans are hoping substitute Joe Negron, whose name is not on the ballot, can still pull off a victory over Democrat Tim Mahoney.
Analysts rate the race as a toss-up and the GOP has fashioned signs that say "Punch Foley for Joe," a humorous instruction to voters to mark Foley's name on the ballot to elect Negron.
The president's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, said despite national polls that show the country prefers Democratic leadership, or a divided government, the individual races suggest Republicans will maintain control.
If Democrats do win the majority, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could become the first woman speaker of the House. That's not going to happen, predicted Majority Leader John Boehner.
"I have one prediction for you — that Nancy Pelosi will run for and be elected minority leader. And I wish her the best of luck," he said.
More Difficult Predictions for Senate
While the conventional wisdom is for the House to change hands, Democrats need six seats to take back the Senate, and many pundits question whether it can be done. About seven races are competitive, and two, New Jersey and Maryland, are Democrat-held seats.
With such a close contest, even party allegiances are far from secure. In Maryland on Monday, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele showcased his bipartisan values, announcing endorsements from five prominent Democratic officials in his home of Prince George's County. Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin won other endorsements, but no crossover support.
In a less competitive race, but one that pits Democrat against Democrat, Republican New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed Sen. Joe Lieberman, who lost the primary and is running as an independent, though he says if re-elected, he will caucus with the party that dropped him.
"I think people of all parties are just tired of the political bickering," the mayor said at a news conference in Stamford, Conn. A spokeswoman for challenger Ned Lamont, Liz Dupont-Diehl, said the day's developments meant that Lieberman was "aiding and abetting a policy that persecutes Connecticut residents" since Bloomberg supports a commuter tax for outsiders coming to his city.
In Missouri, parties remained allied, with powerhouse fundraiser and White House spokesman Tony Snow coming out for an event for incumbent Sen. Jim Talent, who's in a toss up race with Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill.
Talent has faced opposition from celebrity Michael J. Fox, who launched a campaign push over embryonic stem cell research on behalf of McCaskill. The actor, who has Parkinson's disease, admitted he had not read the ballot initiative that voters are to weigh in on, but he's sure he agrees with it in spirit.
That has brought criticism of Fox by many opponents to stem cell research, but Talent took the high road after the news.
"I'm sure he's read it now. It is long, and it is kind of complicated so he maybe got a summary or something," Talent said.
A different path was taken in Tennessee, where Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is under fire for repeating a charge by his campaign chairman that critics say questions the faith of Republicans.
"There is one big difference between us and Republicans when it comes to our faith," Ford told prospective voters. "Republicans fear the Lord. ... Democrats fear and love the Lord."
In Virginia's Senate race, Democrat Jim Webb was knocked off message last Thursday when incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen's campaign complained about graphically-depicted and lewd fictional scenes in Webb's novels. The best-selling author defended his writings all weekend, eclipsing coverage of the Democratic response he delivered Saturday to the president's radio address.
Webb's counter-punch: a demand that Republican Sen. George Allen release sealed divorce files from his first marriage, and alleged arrest records from the 1970s. Allen aides call it desperate insisting that Allen's has been summoned twice — once for non-payment of parking tickets while in college and another time for fishing without a license.
FOX News' Major Garrett, Bret Baier and Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.