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Democrats playing on opponents’ words

In Kentucky, a candidate is accused of being soft on drug abuse. In Delaware, it appears it was evolution the candidate was soft on. In Florida, a House race is resurrecting debate over a 97-year-old amendment to the Constitution.

This in an election that was supposed to be all about the economy and jobs.

But in contests across the country, Republican candidates — particularly those aligned with the “tea party” movement — are finding themselves knocked off topic as they try to explain and revise a barrage of prior statements.

An odd assortment of issues, including witchcraft and the president’s religion, have proved distracting as candidates head into the heated final stretch of the general election campaign.

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But it’s not merely a case of media nitpicking or YouTube moments. In some cases, the side issues have begun to affect races.

The situation is in large part a result of a Democratic strategy aimed at changing the conversation from voters’ frustration with Democratic leaders in Washington to a portrayal of tea party Republicans as extremist. The tactic was one of the few available to Democrats saddled with a national political climate decidedly turned against them and a stubbornly slow economic recovery.

The diversion tactics seem to be working better in some races than others. However, rarely has a set of candidates given opponents so much to work with.

The most prominent example might be Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, whose appearances in years past as a frequent guest on “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” seem to have left a trail of politically problematic statements. Aside from joking about once dabbling in witchcraft, O’Donnell also declared evolution a myth and in a 1998 show explained her rationale: “Why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans?”

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But O’Donnell’s isn’t the only campaign veering off the script.

In Michigan, Republican Tim Walberg, running to reclaim a House seat he lost in 2008, quickly retracted his statement made on a talk radio show that he “didn’t know” whether President Obama was born in the U.S. or whether he is a Muslim. But not before national Democrats pounced on the comment.

In northern Florida, Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd’s first television ad attacked opponent Steve Southerland for his apparent endorsement of repealing the 17th Amendment — the one allowing for popular election of U.S. senators. Boyd’s camp pointed to a video of Southerland being asked about the issue and responding that he was “fine with that.” Southerland’s campaign has since said that he does not support a repeal.

In Kentucky, in a marquee race for the tea party movement, Republican Rand Paul has been dogged by a series of comments about drug abuse and federal anti-drug programs. An outsider candidate with libertarian leanings, Paul has said he believes funding for drug programs should come from local and state sources and reportedly told the Associated Press that the matter was “not a real pressing issue” in the Senate race.

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The comment was widely viewed as misreading the concerns of voters in Appalachia, where the drug problem is seen as an epidemic and where a strong showing by Paul is considered key to his chances of winning.

Paul’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

“If there’s a common thread, it’s that they’re all neophyte candidates, and novices tend to make mistakes,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with the Cook Political Report. “They have trouble sticking to the stump speech, or they get a question and they over-answer it.”

Another tea party favorite, GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada, is currently facing fallout from one such “over-answer,” Duffy said. In a 2009 video that recently surfaced, Angle is seen slamming state laws requiring health insurance policies to cover certain conditions.

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As an example, Angle points to mandated care for autism and pregnancy. Indicating air quotes around the word autism, Angle suggested the mandate was being misused, but offered no evidence.

Angle’s opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has hardly let a day pass without finding a way to circulate the video to reporters and suggest that Angle was somehow questioning autism as a true medical condition. Angle has denied that explanation. Still, a group of parents of autistic children and expecting mothers gathered last week in Las Vegas to demand an apology.

That the issue of a health insurance mandate may be secondary to voters in a state with a 14% unemployment rate is beside the point, said Chuck Muth, a conservative strategist in Nevada.

“The problem is Reid is trying to enact a political death by a thousand cuts. It’s not just the autism; it’s the constant barrage. Eventually, if you hear a thousand bad things, at some point the details don’t matter,” Muth said.

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Reid’s approach appears to be making some headway. The senator was long considered among the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate, even before the economy’s prolonged stagnation and the steady decline in the president’s approval ratings. Now his race is considered a dead heat, a measure of his success.

However, not all Democrats following a similar approach are gaining in the polls. Despite Boyd’s attempts to link Southerland to the outer edge of the tea party’s constitutional theory, the race is still considered a toss-up, as is Walberg’s race in Michigan. Paul has continued to lead in most polls in Kentucky, although one recent survey found him tied with Democrat Jack Conway, the state attorney general.

In Colorado, where Democrats have lobbed attacks at GOP Senate candidate Ken Buck, the strategy seems to be having little effect. Buck, a tea party favorite who was prone to gaffes in the primary, has been hit with ads suggesting he too favors repeal of the 17th Amendment. His opponent, Sen. Michael Bennet, also has cast Buck as anti-veteran for suggesting that Veterans Administration hospitals be privatized.

But Buck, the Weld County district attorney, seems to be weathering the critique and has tried to moderate positions that might make him less appealing to centrist voters in the state, said Colorado State University political scientist Kyle Saunders.

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In doesn’t hurt, Saunders said, that another tea party candidate seems to be getting most of the attention in the state. The Republican candidate for governor, Dan Maes, has lost considerable support even from his own party, thanks in part to oddball statements such as the claim that Denver’s bike sharing program was a " United Nations plot.”

“There’s somebody out there, in Dan Maes, saying more extreme, more politically unwise things,” Saunders said.

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com


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