Candidates make dash for finish line

Posted in United States | 07-Nov-06 | Author: John M. Broder and Jim Rutenbe| Source: International Herald Tribune

Gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, center, speaks in Los Angeles.

Exhausted candidates across the country delivered their final appeals on Monday, closing a campaign that will determine the balance of power in Washington for the next two years and render a judgment about President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

Candidates, party committees and interest groups flooded voters with a flurry of late advertising and heavy spending on turn-out-the-vote operations on the last day of the most expensive, and one of the nastiest, midterm elections in American history.

Most independent analysts predicted a strong Democratic wave on Tuesday, but Republicans found a glimmer of hope in a handful of weekend polls that showed the percentage of voters saying they planned to vote for Democrats dipping slightly. And Democratic officials acknowledged that Senate seats they thought they had wrapped up - in Maryland, Montana, New Jersey and Rhode Island - were no longer sure things.

After months of attacks on the stump and on the airwaves about sex and race, scandal and war, candidates and parties turned most of their attention to closing the sale and driving their voters to the polls on Tuesday.

In Georgia, Representative Jim Marshall, one of fewer than a half dozen threatened Democratic incumbents, spent the day making phone calls to answer questions from undecided voters.

The candidates in a tight race for a seat along Florida's east coast, Representative E. Clay Shaw Jr., the Republican, and Ron Klein, his Democratic challenger, spent the day trolling for votes in complexes for the elderly, talking about prescription drug benefits under the new Medicare program.

In the contest for an open House seat in Colorado's Seventh District, around Denver, Republicans contacted more than 50,000 households over the weekend by telephone and door-to-door canvassing.

Some 4,500 members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as Acorn, donned bright red T-shirts and were out campaigning in favor of ballot proposals to raise the minimum wage in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Ohio.

In Arizona, the actor Michael J. Fox appeared with two Democratic candidates to advocate lifting restrictions on stem cell research, an issue that has come to play a prominent role in several races around the country.

In Texas, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, the Republican write-in candidate for the seat vacated by Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, closed a hectic day Monday night with a party in the affluent Clear Lake area. She scoffed at predictions made by some news media outlets about her candidacy.

"They may have jumped the gun when they said two months ago that there was no way that Congressional District 22 would stay Republican," Sekula-Gibbs told the crowd, "but guess what, it's going to stay Republican."

Bush spent the day on the fringes of contests for the House and Senate, seeking to rally Republican voters in Arkansas, Florida and Texas. But Karl Rove, his senior adviser, expressed open irritation at the last-minute decision by Charlie Crist, the Republican candidate for governor in Florida, not to appear with the president at a large and spirited rally in Pensacola, a development that underscored the reluctance of his own party's candidates to be too closely linked to Bush.

Bush, with his shirtsleeves rolled up and his wife, Laura, and brother Jeb at his side, told the crowd that Republicans were more devoted to the nation's security than were Democrats. He received some of his most sustained applause - mixed with chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A.!" - when he reminded the crowd, "Saddam Hussein was convicted and sentenced to death."

Ending his day of campaigning in Dallas, he told thousands at the Reunion Arena, "We're closing strong because we're right on the issues," and exhorted volunteers to work the telephones and get voters to the polls.

In addition to contests for Congress, 36 governor's chairs and thousands of state legislative seats are to be decided. Polls indicate that Democrats could pick up as many as 10 governor's offices now held by Republicans without losing a single one now in Democratic hands.

Voters in 37 states will consider dozens of ballot initiatives on embryonic stem cell research, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, abortion, the environment and other issues.

Democratic Party officials have sought from the beginning of the campaign to frame the election as primarily about Bush, and particularly about his conduct of the war in Iraq.

"We've always wanted this to be a national referendum," said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, "and it's helping us from one end of the country to the other."

Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that most races would be decided on local issues and that party volunteers were knocking on an average of three million doors a day nationwide, part of the Republicans' so-called 72-hour strategy for turning out their voters.

Mehlman, however, introduced a cautionary note in contrast with confident predictions by Bush, Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney that Republicans would retain majorities in the House and Senate.

Asked about his party's prospects in the House, Mehlman said that although he saw signs of new hope that Republicans could retain control, "I believe it's going to be very close; I think it remains an uphill climb."

He sounded more confident about the Senate.

Independent analysts predict Democratic gains of 20 and 40 seats in the House, giving the party control for the first time since 1994. An analysis accompanying a Gallup Poll released over the weekend said that based on calculations from Congressional elections from 1946 to 2002, the Democrats were poised to gain 11 to 58 seats, with a gain of 35 the most likely outcome.

More than 100 optimistic but anxious House Democrats took part in a party conference call Monday afternoon, getting an update on races and some guidance from Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, on how to proceed should Democrats prevail. According to participants, Pelosi told her colleagues that the first 48 hours after the election would be important in defining the party's image if they gained a majority and that Democrats should be united, show respect for diverse views and a willingness to work with Republicans and President Bush

A half-dozen Senate seats remained competitive, with both parties warily watching races in Rhode Island, Maryland, Missouri, Montana and Virginia.

All the last-minute spending and the spin, the door-knocking and the robocalling will have no effect on the estimated 25 percent of the electorate that has already cast votes, either by absentee ballot or at early voting stations.

California's secretary of state, Bruce McPherson, said that local elections officials issued 5.1 million absentee ballots and that he expected that 44 percent of all votes cast in the state would be cast by mail. Ohio elections officials won a court ruling that they could immediately begin counting tens of thousands of absentee ballots that were piling up in county clerks' offices.

Over all, about 42 percent of eligible voters are expected to cast ballots, which would be the highest percentage in any midterm election since 1982, said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University and an expert on voter behavior. Gans said he based his estimate on the intensity of voter interest and the number of absentee ballots issued.

"Even the ugly campaign has not dampened their desire to come out," he said.

The barrage of negative advertising continued, but some candidates adopted an almost elegiac tone to their final arguments.

Representative James T. Walsh, a nine-term Republican from Syracuse who is facing a tough challenge, began running a television advertisement last weekend in which he wore a casual sweater and spoke directly to the camera.

"I think you know me," Walsh says in the commercial. "I think you trust me. I want you to know I share your frustration with the war. These are difficult times for America. We've got to stop the finger-pointing and the partisanship and address all our nation's challenges, both at home and abroad, together."

Bob Casey, the Pennsylvania Democrat who appears likely to unseat Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican, sits on the stoop of his home in Scranton, Pa., in his final advertisement and talks about binding up the wounds of the bitter campaign.

"After all the noise of this campaign year," Casey says in the spot, "I wanted to talk with you about what lies ahead. The only way we're going to work through problems like losing jobs to other countries, protecting Americans from terrorism or the war in Iraq is for Democrats and Republicans to start working together again."