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updated 7/16/2009 6:08:08 PM ET 2009-07-16T22:08:08

Republican leaders in Congress plan to zero in on the nation’s economy, weighed down by an unemployment rate approaching 10 percent, as key to building momentum for the 2010 elections.

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Democrats, who say they and President Obama inherited an economy driven off the rails by President George W. Bush and a GOP Congress, have a simple response: Bring it on.

Harkening back to the Democrats’ 1992 campaign adage — “it’s the economy, stupid” — Republicans are seeking to build on public anxiety and drape the weak economy around the necks of President Obama and the Democratic Congress if they hope to make gains in the 2010 congressional elections. Their daily, relentless message leaves little doubt that this is exactly what they intend to do as they hammer at the president’s $787 billion stimulus package (PL 111-5) and the growing national debt.

The GOP also are tying the Democrats’ key legislative initiatives on global warming and energy and health care to the economy, charging that legislation pushed by Obama and his Democratic allies includes huge middle-class tax increases that would cripple the economy at exactly the wrong moment.

“We’re going to take the gloves off on the economy,” said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference. “I’m going to be a one-trick pony on the economy for a while.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, said another key component of the GOP strategy is to convince voters that the nation’s economic malaise belongs to Obama, not his predecessor or anyone else. “There’s going to come a time when the president has to be held accountable,” Alexander said. “He can’t keep looking back at President Bush or President Hoover or President Roosevelt or President Truman and say it’s all their fault. He’s the one who came to us and said let’s borrow a trillion dollars and fix the economy.”

Republicans sense that Obama’s honeymoon with segments of the public is wearing off, mainly because of the deep recession.

On Tuesday, the House Republican Study Group — whose members are the most conservative in the GOP conference — trumpeted results of a CBS News poll in which only 21 percent of the 944 adults polled nationwide July 9-12 said the stimulus plan has made the economy better; 15 percent said it has made the economy worse and 60 percent said the vast plan has had no impact.

Another Quinnipiac University poll conducted in Ohio — considered by many to be the most important swing state in a presidential election — from June 26-July 1 showed Obama with a 49 percent approval rating and a 44 percent disapproval rating. This represented Obama’s lowest approval rating in any national or statewide since he was inaugurated and is down from 62 percent approval-31 percent disapproval in a May 6 survey.

By a small 48 percent to 46 percent margin, voters disapprove of the way Obama is handling the economy, the poll reported, down from a 57percent to 36 percent posting on May 6.

For Republicans, such findings echo their own soundings of public sentiment. “The stimulus bill is a failure. And this administration continues to insist it is working exactly as was anticipated,” Pence said a day before the poll was released.

“President Obama’s economic decisions have not produced jobs, have not produced prosperity, and simply have not worked,” Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said in the Republicans’ weekly radio address.

During an appearance in Michigan Tuesday, Obama addressed some of the critics on his handling of the economy so far.

“I love these folks who helped get us in this mess and then suddenly say, ‘Well, this is Obama’s economy.’ That’s fine. Give it to me,” he said. “My job is to solve problems, not to stand on the sidelines and carp and gripe. So I welcome the job. I want the responsibility.”

He also cited health care overhaul as one means to deal with the economic downturn

“We’re going to have to make the tough choices necessary to bring down deficits. But don’t let folks fool you,” he said. “The best way to start bringing down deficits is to get control of our health care costs, which is why we need reform.”

Democrats, who say stimulus spending is starting to do its job, charge that Republicans will have a hard time convincing people that Obama still isn’t trying to fix Bush’s economic shambles.

“I don’t think the American people will believe Republicans who are trying to pass the buck,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The American people are very fair. They understand Obama inherited a mess and is doing everything possible to get us out of this mess.”

CQ © 2007 All Rights Reserved | Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1255 22nd Street N.W. Washington, D.C. 20037 | 202-419-8500

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