Message War as Campaigns Surge to the Finish

Message War as Campaigns Surge to the Finish

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The messages are hardening in the final month of the midterm campaign, with Republicans slamming Democrats’ big-thinking, big-spending ways, while Democrats are trying to paint Republican ideas as steps backward. But as races across the country inevitably tighten up, Democrats appear to have the more difficult task of explaining the nuance of their views and casting themselves as populists in red states as well as blue ones.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, made the GOP case on CNN’s State of the Union today. “[People] want us to stop the runway spending, the unsustainable debt. And they want to put America back to work,” Cornyn told host Candy Crowley and his Democratic counterpart, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez. “And they see the big-government American policies of the last year and a half being an impediment to job creation in America.”

“I think that people are beginning in these last 30 days, which is when they really hone in on the election, looking at the differences,” said Menendez. “And I look at that New York Times poll that asks ‘who is more likely to fight for the middle class?’ By a 55-33 margin, the answer is Democrats.”

But running on their record will do Democrats little good, Cornyn responded. “If you like the way the country's going now, if you live in Nevada, you like 14.4 percent unemployment, where 70 percent of the home mortgages are under water, then I guess the message from Majority Leader [Harry] Reid and from Sen. Menendez is stay the course,” he said. Reid faces a tough battle to keep his seat in Nevada.

Some Democrats agree with Cornyn’s take. On CBS’s Face the Nation, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said: “I think it's important that we talk and make those populist themes about creating jobs, about foreclosures. Not talk about all of these Washington bills and initiatives that are happening. The people want to be connected emotionally.”

Rather than talking about federal policies, “Look at success stories in the states, in the grassroots with mayors, with county commissioners,” Richardson suggested. “It's not just the Washington, D.C., party.”

Whichever way they turn, Democrats are getting frustrated. They’re not getting much credit for sweeping new health care and financial regulation laws, as well as stimulus and bailout measures that most economists view as successful. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden told wavering Democrats to “buck up” and stop whining, while Obama called the same group “irresponsible” for their failure of enthusiasm. That led Richardson to admonish Democrats to “stop firing at each other. We've got enough people, the Republicans, firing at us already. So we don't need these divisions in the party.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, put a different spin on the problem. “Number one, ours is a complex message. The tea party message is pretty easy and simple and direct,” he said, also on Face the Nation. “Secondly, we just don't have it in our make-up, in our DNA to mislead the public.”

On a similar note, Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, went so far as to charge that Republicans “do not want America to succeed.” Host Bob Schieffer asked if he really meant it. “I would say that, given the choice between regaining power or obstructing the initiatives that create jobs, that protect the American people, yes, I think gaining power is their major initiative,” Sanders said. 

Speaking of the tea party, Republicans have come around to embracing the movement. Cornyn called it “constructive and helpful,” and said that it has “helped reorient us to our limited government principles.”

But this may be an issue where Democrats can gain some traction. “When Sharron Angle in Nevada says, ‘It's not my job as a U.S. senator to try to help create jobs in Nevada;’ when Ken Buck questions the constitutionality of Social Security and wants to end Medicare; when Ron Johnson in Wisconsin wants to drill in the Great Lakes, those aren't my words. Those are their words,” Menendez said.

In the Senate race in conservative Kentucky, however, tea party candidate Rand Paul is in a tight battle with Democratic state attorney general Jack Conway, perhaps because of those anti-government views. In a debate on Fox News Sunday, Paul criticized Obama for racking up “mountains and mountains of debt” and adding trillions to Social Security and Medicare.

“We have to ask: where does the money come from?” Paul said. “Jack acts like the money's for free. Just go and get it from Santa Claus in Washington.”

In defending his support for the new health care bill, Conway said that it’s added 654,000 people in Kentucky to the rolls of the insured. But he also tried to make the tricky point that while he supports it, he also wants to change it. “I'd like to fix health care. He wants to repeal it. And I think that's a stark difference,” Conway said.

Pressed by host Chris Wallace to cite a specific change he’d support to address the financial state of Medicare or Social Security, Conway came up with allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices and establishing a Medicare fraud office in each state. That’s weak tea, but Paul at least acknowledged that there would need to be changes to eligibility for younger people.