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Nation’s center may get its say Tuesday

Times Staff Writer

In American politics, this might be the year that the center strikes back.

For six years, President Bush and the Republican congressional majority have governed behind a distinctive political strategy that focuses on mobilizing their hard-core supporters with an aggressively conservative agenda, even at the price of straining relations with moderate and independent swing voters.

Indeed, key GOP strategists argue that in this polarized political era, so many Americans have hardened in their loyalty to one of the two major parties that hardly any swing voters still exist.

But this year it appears that reports of the death of the swing voter are premature.

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In races in virtually every corner of the country, key Republican House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates are facing imposing, sometimes cavernous deficits in the traditional center of the electorate, among voters who describe themselves as independents and moderates.

If that trend holds through Tuesday, it may not only sweep Democrats into control of one or both chambers of Congress, but could also ignite a debate in Republican ranks over the continuing viability of the base-centered strategy devised by Bush and key advisors such as Karl Rove.

“You can make a more realistic assessment of this when you see where the losses are, but [the message] is going to be that swing voters still count, and sometimes the more you cater to your base, the more you turn off swing voters,” said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Stanley B. Greenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist who dueled with Bush’s team in 2000 and 2004, is even more emphatic: If the election results follow the trajectory of the latest polls, he says, “I think their whole model is going to lay shattered in pieces.”

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Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, disputed the suggestion that the administration had “ignored or not focused on swing and independent voters” in its political strategy.

“A huge part of my strategy has been to work on expanding the party,” Mehlman said, through systematic outreach to Latinos and African Americans, and the use of advanced “micro-targeting” technology to find GOP-leaning voters in predominantly Democratic communities.

But for years, Rove and his top lieutenants have touted their belief that in this highly polarized era, fewer than 1 in 10 voters still swing in their allegiance between the parties from election to election. One of their key assumptions has been that the vast majority of voters who call themselves independents actually vote like reliable Democrats or Republicans, though they don’t accept the label.

Those conclusions led the White House, in the reversal of the usual practice, to direct more of its campaign spending in 2004 toward mobilizing the Republican base than converting swing voters. It also reinforced Bush’s inclination to pursue an ambitious conservative agenda at home and abroad that largely unified rank-and-file and congressional Republicans in support but generated near lock-step opposition from Democrats.

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“The campaign strategy was geared toward certain policy objectives, and they governed in a certain way to promote that electoral strategy,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “They are intertwined.”

But this year, it appears that less of the electorate is permanently locked down than the White House theories projected. With Bush’s approval rating among independent voters below 30%, polls in every region of the country show independents, who made up about a quarter of the vote in each of the last two elections, moving sharply against Republican candidates.

The belief that swing voters are virtually extinct “has led to a lot of President Bush’s problems,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “Because what it leads you to do is blow off the middle [in your decisions] and only worry about the base. And there are lots of voters who seem very inclined to punish President Bush in this election for behaving that way.”

Tom Beggs, Chuck Dubois and Danny Bell, three businessmen from St. Joseph, Mo., for instance, are all reconsidering their support for Bush and the GOP. Each voted for Bush in 2000; Beggs and Bell voted for him again in 2004.

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But all three are deeply disenchanted with Bush now, largely over the Iraq war, and intend to express their discontent by supporting Democrat Claire McCaskill in the state’s hard-fought Senate race.

The president’s “overall arrogance freaks me out,” said Bell, who owns an insurance agency, after watching McCaskill sweep through a downtown restaurant late last week. “It’s his way or no way. He won’t compromise on anything. He won’t make any changes. I’m going to try to get out as much of that old [Republican] regime as I can.”

Dubois put an exclamation point on their sentiments when he said the group, after seeing McCaskill, planned to memorialize the president during their golf game that morning. “We’re going to call every golf ball George Bush” and hit it, said Dubois, a retired contractor.

Polls suggest that the three are hardly alone in their sentiments. In the 2002 congressional contests, postelection surveys showed that Republicans ran even with independent voters. In 2004, Bush lost them narrowly to the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry.

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But this year, in contests as diverse as the gubernatorial races in Colorado and Michigan, the Senate race in Pennsylvania, the highly contested House race between Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) and New Mexico Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, and open Republican-held House seats in Arizona and Colorado, polls last week showed Democrats leading among independents by at least 20 percentage points.

A recent Times/Bloomberg survey showed Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown leading GOP Sen. Mike DeWine by a dozen percentage points with independents in Ohio. CNN surveys last week showed Democratic Senate candidates holding leads of 7 to 9 percentage points with independent voters even in Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee, three right-leaning states.

In a compilation of more than 41,000 automated survey interviews conducted last week in competitive congressional districts from coast to coast, the nonpartisan Majority Watch project found that independents preferred Democratic candidates over Republicans by 52% to 39%.

Despite the national numbers, Mehlman said he believed that in districts with the largest percentages of independent voters, Republicans would survive because they had built strong personal ties to those constituents; he cited Reps. Nancy L. Johnson in Connecticut, E. Clay Shaw Jr. in Florida and Jim Gerlach in suburban Philadelphia.

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But public surveys last week showed Johnson and Gerlach lagging among independents -- and trailing their Democratic challengers. No new figures were available for Shaw.

In some key contests, the GOP base may be large enough to produce a thin majority even if independents break toward the Democrats. Races on that list could include the Senate contest in Tennessee, and conceivably in Missouri and Montana, as well as House races in districts that tilt heavily toward the GOP in states such as Kentucky and Nebraska.

Bush is focusing his final travel schedule on such places, with a message aimed at mobilizing Republicans through fierce attacks on Democrats on issues such as taxes, domestic security and Iraq.

Virginia Rep. Davis, the former GOP congressional campaign committee chairman, said the best news for his party in the final days before the election was that Bush’s razor-edged message, combined with the controversy surrounding Kerry’s recent remarks about the Iraq war, appeared to be energizing Republican base voters to turn out.

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But in areas of the country with larger proportions of swing and independent voters, such as Connecticut, Ohio, and the suburbs of Philadelphia and Denver, Republican candidates face large deficits with those voters that will be difficult to overcome.

And in such places, Davis believes, Bush’s rhetoric offers little help and may even prove counterproductive, by further antagonizing swing voters unhappy over Iraq and over Washington’s intense partisanship.

Bush’s closing argument “stops a total collapse,” Davis said. “But it’s not a strategy for keeping the House.”

If Bush generates a surge of GOP turnout that enables Republicans to do better than expected Tuesday, his base-oriented approach could solidify its dominance in the party.

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Big Democratic gains, on the other hand, would likely be prelude to the most open questioning of Bush’s governing and political strategy that the president has faced since taking office.

“You want to be able to mobilize your base without alienating independents,” said one senior House Republican, who asked for anonymity when expressing doubts about White House strategy. “We’ve been able to do the first; I’m not convinced we have been able to do the second. And that could be a very dangerous thing come Tuesday night.”

ronald.brownstein@ latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Election preview

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In the Senate

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Incumbents are heavily favored in most of Tuesday’s 33 Senate contests, but the results in 10 competitive races should decide which party controls the chamber. Eight Republican-held seats are considered endangered; Democrats have two at risk. Democrats need a net gain of six seats to gain a majority.

GOP-held seats at risk

Pennsylvania

Rick Santorum (R)

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Incumbent

Bob Casey Jr. (D)

Santorum is a renowned conservative activist, and that will probably be his undoing in a state where most voters are more moderate. Casey, who opposes abortion rights, appears poised to win.

Ohio

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Mike DeWine (R)

Incumbent

Sherrod Brown (D)

DeWine has been harmed by a struggling state economy and fallout from a scandal that ensnared other state GOP

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officials. Brown, a liberal House member from the Cleveland area, is now ahead in the polls.

Rhode Island

Lincoln Chafee (R)

Incumbent

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Sheldon Whitehouse (D)

Chafee was appointed to his father’s seat in 1999 and won it outright a year later. His family name and his generally liberal voting record may not be enough to survive in a strongly Democratic state.

Montana

Conrad Burns (R)

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Incumbent

Jon Tester (D)

Burns was tainted by links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and verbal gaffes on the campaign trail. Tester, a rancher, staked out a lead in the polls, but the race has tightened. The state’s GOP roots could save Burns.

Virginia

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George Allen (R)

Incumbent

Jim Webb (D)

Allen began his reelection bid as a potential presidential contender in 2008; now, a mistake-plagued campaign may leave him jobless. Allen’s reference to a Democratic volunteer of Indian descent as “Macaca,” questions about whether he once used racial slurs to refer to black people, and attacks on sexually explicit passages in novels written by Webb all have marked this bizarre contest. The race is a tossup.

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Tennessee

Bob Corker (R)

Harold E. Ford Jr. (D)

Fighting for the seat Republican Bill Frist is giving up, Ford is attempting to become the first black elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. He has run a strong race, but a win over Corker would be seen as a surprise.

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Arizona

Jon Kyl (R)

Incumbent

Jim Pederson (D)

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With growing numbers of suburban and Latino voters changing the state’s political complexion, Democrats see an outside chance at beating Kyl. Pederson got last-minute help from the national party.

Missouri

Jim Talent (R)

Incumbent

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Claire McCaskill (D)

Talent and McCaskill have been locked in the country’s tightest race - and the one that may end up determining Senate control. Talent is banking on strong support from rural voters who have been crucial to Republican successes here and elsewhere in recent years.

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Democratic-held

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seats at risk

New Jersey

Robert Menendez (D)

Incumbent

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Tom Kean Jr. (R)

Menendez, one of the Senate’s three Latinos, has faced a tough fight as he seeks a full term to the seat he was appointed to last year. The state’s Democratic tilt and voter disapproval of President Bush may power him to victory. If Kean pulls an upset, Democratic hopes for a majority almost assuredly will be dashed.

Maryland

Benjamin L. Cardin (D)

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Michael Steele (R)

In a heavily Democratic state, the party presumed it would easily retain the seat held by Paul Sarbanes, who is retiring. But Cardin has proved a lackluster candidate. He still is likely to win, overcoming a spirited challenge from Steele, an African American who effectively de-emphasized his GOP affiliation as part of his effort to woo black voters.

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Virtually all analysts expect Democrats to pick up seats. But whether they gain at least 15 -the minimum they need for a majority-hinges in part on how they fare in a handful of states where several Republican-held districts could change hands

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States with multiple Republicans at risk

Connecticut

Pennsylvania

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Ohio

New York

Indiana

Florida

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Other key Democratic targets

Arizona,

8th District

Gabrielle Giffords (D)

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Randy Graf (R)

Giffords is heavily favored to win this open seat. The GOP-nominated staunch conservative Randy Graf seems out of step with a district that includes much of Tucson.

New Mexico,

1st District

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Heather A. Wilson (R)

Incumbent

Patricia Madrid (D)

In one of the nation’s relatively few districts not drawn to strongly favor one party, Wilson is fighting for her political life. The outcome could be a bellwether of Democrats’ success nationwide.

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North Carolina, 11th District

Charles H. Taylor (R)

Incumbent

Heath Shuler (D)

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In another potential bellwether, Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, is emphasizing a conservative platform. A Shuler win would be a good sign for Democratic prospects elsewhere.

Texas,

22nd District

Shelley Sekula-Gibbs (R)

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Nick Lampson (D)

This seat opened when ethics controversies led onetime House powerbroker Tom DeLay to resign, leaving the GOP without a candidate on the ballot. Lampson is favored to beat Sekula-Gibbs, who is running a write-in campaign.

California,

4th and

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22nd Districts

John T. Doolittle (R) and Richard W. Pombo (R)

Incumbents

Charges of ethics missteps have dogged Doolittle and Pombo, but they remain favorites in races against Democrats Charlie Brown and Jerry McNerney, respectively. A loss by either would signal a strong voter desire for change.

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In the governors’ offices

The 36 gubernatorial races involve most of nation’s largest states, including California. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger is favored to retain his office in Sacramento, but Democrats are likely to make gains elsewhere.

Expected Democratic pickups

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Massachusetts

Kerry Healey (R)

Deval Patrick (D)

The GOP has held the governor’s chair in this largely Democratic state since 1991, but Patrick is strongly favored to change that. Patrick, a lawyer, would become the country’s second African American governor since Reconstruction.

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New York

John Faso (R)

Eliot Spitzer (D)

Some polls have shown Spitzer favored by about 70% of the voters. GOP incumbent George E. Pataki is stepping down.

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Ohio

J. Kenneth Blackwell (R)

Ted Strickland (D)

With term-limited GOP incumbent Robert A. Taft engulfed in scandal, Democrats began with an advantage. Their prospects have improved, with Strickland far ahead of Blackwell. Control of the governor’s office could help Democratic prospects in this key state in the 2008 presidential election.

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Likely to remain Democratic

Pennsylvania

Ed Rendell (D)

Incumbent

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Lynn Swann (R)

The GOP had high hopes for Swann, the former Pittsburgh

Steelers wide receiver and hall of fame football player. But his inexperience has been obvious on the campaign trail. Rendell, a veteran of state politics, seems headed for an easy win.

Michigan

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Jennifer Granholm (D)

Incumbent

Dick DeVos (R)

Granholm, once an aspiring

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actress in Los Angeles, has faced a tough fight, largely because of the state’s economic troubles. Still, recent polls have shown her comfortably ahead of DeVos, whose father co-founded Amway.

Illinois

Rod Blagojevich (D)

Incumbent

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Judy Baar Topinka (R)

Blagojevich rode into office four years ago on the heels of scandal that tarred his GOP predecessor. Blagojevich also has been dogged by ethics controversies, but he has retained his lead in polls.

Likely to remain Republican

Florida

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Charlie Crist (R)

Jim Davis (D)

The race to replace outgoing Republican Jeb Bush, brother of President Bush, has tightened recently. Crist, presently attorney general of Florida, should hold on to defeat Davis, a congressman from Florida’s 11th District.

Texas

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Rick Perry (R)

Incumbent

Chris Bell (D)

Carole Keeton Strayhorn (Ind.)

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Kinky Friedman (Ind.)

Perry is expected to win this unusual four-candidate contest. He may fall well short of the 50% mark, but benefit from a split vote among Bell, Strayhorn (mother of former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan) and Friedman (a musician and mystery writer).


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