Republicans on Sunday said a major voter turnout effort would help them stay in power after the Nov. 7 elections, while Democrats claimed momentum as they seek to tap into voter unhappiness over Iraq.
Both sides agreed that the war in Iraq was a leading, if not central, issue in the contests to decide control of the House and Senate.
"This election is becoming more and more a referendum on George Bush, his failed policies both overseas and at home with a rubber stamp Congress," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, head of the Senate Democratic campaign committee.
His Republican counterpart, Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, said Iraq and the broader fight against terrorism were important issues, but "President Bush's name is not on the ballot." Democrats, she said, were trying "to make it a national referendum."
Schumer and Dole were among the politicians and party leaders who sparred on the Sunday talk shows just nine days before the elections.
Control of Congress
Democrats need a gain of 15 seats to win control of the 435-member House and six seats to claim the 100-member Senate.
With approval slumping for both the war and the president, recent polls show Democrats have their best chance to reclaim the House since the GOP swept them from power in 1994, and a shot at capturing the Senate as well.
As the candidates entered their final full week of campaigning, House Democrats worked to emphasize the GOP role in the Iraq war. The party's campaign committee said it would air television commercials criticizing Republicans for supporting the war in about a dozen competitive races in the coming days.
"Despite a war gone wrong and no plan for victory, politicians like (Rep.) Rob Simmons keep voting to stay the course again and again," says one commercial, airing in Connecticut.
National vs. local elections
Democrats have increased the number of races where they are advertising in recent days, a sign of confidence as the election approaches. In addition to new offensives in Kansas, Kentucky and New Hampshire, officials disclosed plans to run commercials against Republican Rep. Jim Walsh this week in the area around Syracuse, N.Y.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said polls showing a Democratic advantage, especially in the House, "don't mean anything, because what we have are 435 individual races all around the country, local candidates running on local issues."
"If we mobilize all our voters, we'll do well on Election Day," Boehner said.
"The pundits are looking at this as a national election," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "This election is district-by-district. It's about members of Congress getting out and talking to their constituents about what they've been able to accomplish."
Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, sounded a common Republican theme - that a Democratic-led Congress would mean higher taxes. Democrats accused him of scare tactics.
Mehlman suggested "across-the-board tax increases affecting millions of Americans" if Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel became chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. The New York lawmaker is now the panel's senior Democrat.
Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney contended Rangel wanted to undo popular tax cuts enacted during Bush's first term. Cheney's claim was based in part on Rangel's own remark that he could not think of one of Bush's tax cuts that merited renewal.
"Once again the vice president hasn't the slightest clue about what he's talking about. He's never talked with me and neither has anyone in the administration about taxes," Rangel said Sunday. Rangel said his own remarks referred to broad-based tax overhaul efforts.
"What I did say was that, if they want to have tax reform, if they want simplification, everything has to be on the table," Rangel said.
Democratic party chief Howard Dean said Democrats "have no intention of raising taxes except on the people who have got enormous tax breaks - like the oil companies - from the Republicans."
Paring down the efforts
In Senate races, both national parties were focusing on a dwindling number of states, notably Tennessee, Missouri, New Jersey and Virginia.
Democrats had strong leads against Republican incumbents in Rhode Island, Montana, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
"The momentum here is outstanding on our side," said Democratic Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, vying for the seat now held by retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Ford denounced as "a piece of smut" an RNC-financed TV attack ad in which a white woman with bare shoulders says she met Ford at a "Playboy party," looks into the camera and whispers, "Harold, call me."
The ad does not mention that Ford is black. Civil rights groups complained the commercial makes an implicit appeal to a deep-seated racial fears about black men and white women.
"I don't think race had anything to do with that ad. I just think it was an uncalled-for, despicable, inappropriate ad," Ford said. He added, "The party of family values should not have run that in Tennessee or anywhere, for that matter."
Ford's GOP opponent, former Chattanooga, Tenn., mayor Bob Corker, was invited to appear with Ford but was not available, according to the Fox network.
Mehlman repeated his assertion that the RNC had no control over the independently produced ad, even though the RNC paid for it.
Also Sunday, rivals in Maryland's closely watched Senate race held a nationally televised debate in which Republican candidate Michael Steele, the lieutenant governor, said the Iraq was "a mess" and blamed the Pentagon for poor planning. Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin repeated his opposition to the war and said he hoped U.S. troops could be withdrawn by 2007; he called that a goal, not a deadline.
A poll released Sunday by The Washington Post had Cardin leading Steele by 11 percentage points.
In the New Jersey Senate race, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez held a slight lead over Republican Tom Kean Jr., 48-42 percent in a poll published Sunday in The Record of Bergen County.
Meanwhile, the New York Times endorsed Connecticut Democrat Ned Lamont for Senate while The Hartford Courant and New Haven Register backed Sen. Joe Lieberman's independent bid for a fourth term.
"Ned Lamont has run a far less polished campaign than Mr. Lieberman, but the more we see of him, the more impressed we are by his intelligence and his growing sophistication about the issues facing the nation," the Times wrote.
Schumer, Dole and Ford were on "Fox News Sunday." Boehner appeared on ABC's "This Week," Dean and Mehlman on CBS' "Face the Nation," Steele and Cardin on NBC's "Meet the Press" and Rangel on "Late Edition" on CNN. Hastert appeared on Fox's "Hannity on America."