WASHINGTON – Senior Republicans say they believe Democratic Sen. John Kerry's "stuck in Iraq" blunder at the beginning of the week could help them come Election Day, even though Kerry has apologized for his "poorly worded joke" and disappeared from public view.
Republicans argue that Kerry has motivated many in the base, who had been demoralized for months of news about ethics scandals, violence in Iraq and growing Democratic confidence about the party's chances on Tuesday.
"(Kerry) apologized a little too late and it has given us momentum," said former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. "But this election is not going to be just about John Kerry, it's about what the Democrats would do to the country ... It's about a strong economy and about protecting America and we have a great economy in this country and that economy will be jeopardized if the taxes go up."
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Former Sen. John Edwards, Kerry's 2004 running mate, campaigned with Maryland Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin on Thursday evening. He predicted Kerry's comments will have no impact on Democrats come Election Day.
"I think what's going to affect the election is what's been happening in America for the last six years," Edwards said. "I think what's going to matter is people are motivated to go vote because they know America is better than what we're seeing right now."
With anywhere from seven to 60 House races defying predictions, pundits are concentrating closely on the Senate. Democrats need six seats to take the majority. Polling has put them ahead in most of the tightest races, and the GOP has just about written off contests in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"The playing field in Ohio is so bleak for it's hard to see how (Sen. Mike) DeWine is going to pull that race out," said John McIntyre, president of RealClearPolitics.com, which has been closely monitoring the polls.
But Republicans say they are seeing some late-breaking upward momentum for their candidates in a couple races that for a long time had been tracking toward Democrats. McIntyre said control of the Senate will turn on those contests.
"Right now, it's going to come down to a few toss-up states — Montana, Virginia and Missouri. Really close," he said.
In Montana, blunder-prone Sen. Conrad Burns got a second wind Thursday in his bid to hang onto his seat. The latest poll showed Burns within one point of his opponent, Democrat Jon Tester, and President Bush appeared at a rally to rile up the base in the Republican stronghold state.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee head Sen. Chuck Schumer said he's not concerned. Burns has "never gotten above the threshold level" of 50 percent support, which Tester has achieved, Schumer said.
In Rhode Island, a noted GOP operative told FOX News late Thursday that internal polls show the race between Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and Sen. Lincoln Chafee have closed up despite public polling to the contrary.
"We’ve got Rhode Island very close internally. So does the governor’s internal (poll), and a poll done for a ballot initiative has Chafee actually up a few," the operative said.
In Tennessee, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker flew ahead of Democratic Rep. Harold Ford in the latest poll, a 10-point edge for Corker that even some Republicans say seems too good to be true. Schumer denied that Tennessee is slipping away, saying DSCC internal polls "show us ahead a little bit" in the state.
In Virginia, polls show Sen. George Allen and former Navy secretary James Webb running within a point of each other. Webb grabbed the lead in just the last week. Calling Virginia, the "Cinderella story," Schumer said he's not declaring victory yet, but "wait until you see the new ads … wait until you see — that's all I can say."
Schumer said Democrats have learned the lessons of previous years, when they did not have teams on the ground to turn out voters. He said he is coordinating with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois to make sure people get out to vote in Ohio. He said they expect to be able to match RNC efforts in most places, including Missouri and Montana.
Acknowledging that Kerry's botched joke about U.S. troops did cause a temporary setback, Schumer nonetheless said he feels good about Democratic prospects on Tuesday. As for Kerry, Schumer said the Massachusetts senator put an end to the issue when he apologized and went home.
"I think he did the right thing (by apologizing late Wednesday); he's not saying anything on this issue and neither am I," said Schumer, who revealed that he had "spoken to (Kerry) several times, but the contents of the conversations are going to remain between us."
With just days left to the election, incumbent Republican senators in conservative states are still counting on Bush to attend rallies and excite the base, a task the president hopes to achieve by pressing the issue of confirming conservative judges to the federal bench, warning voters about potential tax hikes under a Democratic majority and insisting that Republicans won't desert the troops as they try to meet their objectives in the War on Terror.
Political analysts say the White House is very carefully calculating the president's travel schedule, which could project victory or defeat.
"It's much better to have him on the road and fighting than holed up at the White House or in his ranch in Crawford," said David Drucker of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
Political adviser Dick Morris said GOP success will all come down to whether Republicans care to show up at the polls on Tuesday.
"I don't think the independents are going to decide this race. I think it will come down to whether the Republicans want a Republican Congress or not," Morris said, noting that one third of the Republican vote is going against Missouri Sen. Jim Talent despite his conservative credentials.
"They are running up and down escalators. There's such a huge Democratic trend going on. But what's happening is the Republican base is leaving. Now everybody says it's because of Iraq and it's because of the corruption and all that stuff. I think what's happening is that the isolationist wing of the Republican Party base ... is walking out on the Bush wing," he said.
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