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Bush’s save-the-majority tour hits strong Republican outposts

WASHINGTON — President Bush, campaigner in chief for a party in peril, set out on a rescue mission for embattled candidates in the unlikeliest of places Thursday as Republicans struggled to minimize their losses in next week’s elections.
    Democrats expressed growing optimism that their long season out of power might soon end. Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senate campaign organization, claimed strong early voting in a long-shot race in Arizona, and said it was ‘‘harbinger of a wave’’ that would benefit his party.
    Five days before the election, Democratic strategists said none of their incumbents in either house of Congress was trailing — and Republicans did not disagree.
    The GOP side of the political ledger was far less positive. Strategists already have written off the re-election prospects of incumbent Sens. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine in Ohio, as well as six or more seats in GOP hands in the House. Dozens more Republican lawmakers — powerbrokers and backbenchers, conservatives and moderates — struggled to survive in a campaign shadowed by the war in Iraq and scandal at home.
    ‘‘We’ve been through this before,’’ Bush said in Billings, Mont., projecting confidence as he embarked on his save-the-majority tour. ‘‘... We will win the Senate and we will win the House.’’
    His itinerary showed it would be a struggle. The pre-election flight plan for Air Force One consisted of areas of the country where Republicans are in trouble — House seats in Colorado, rural Nevada and Kansas, and gubernatorial races in Arkansas, Iowa and Nevada, as well as Sen. Conrad Burns’ bid for a fourth Senate term in Montana.
    Western Nebraska, too, was ticketed for a presidential visit, Bush’s presence deemed needed to save a House seat that Democrats last held 50 years ago.
    Democrats must pick up 15 seats to gain control of the House. Their magic number is six in the Senate.
    Democrats said they were winning because of the public’s growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.
    Polls show more Americans — now a clear majority — see the war as a mistake and far fewer support how the president has handled the conflict.
    Bush showed no signs of flinching as he spoke to a crowd in Billings.
    ‘‘Imagine this: We’re in the midst of a war on terror, and one of the most fundamental fights is in Iraq, and yet the Democrats have no plan for victory. They have no idea how to win. Harsh criticism is not a plan for victory.’’
    Democrats were undeterred.
    ‘‘The White House seems to be playing into our hands,’’ Schumer told reporters as part of a bullish preview of the Democrats’ prospects for Senate races.
    ‘‘In an effort to strengthen their base, they keep reminding the public that there’s not going to be any change in Iraq,’’ he said, referring to Bush’s statement on Wednesday that he wants Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to remain in office through the end of his term.
    Despite the undeniable trouble they confronted, some Republicans said they had made gains in recent days in at least some races that had earlier looked lost.
    Burns’ race was one. Once far behind Democratic challenger Jon Tester in public and private polls, he appeared to have closed the gap in the campaign’s closing days. Democrats said they were not worried, but Bush’s visit, combined with a late infusion of cash by the GOP senatorial committee, suggested Republicans had not given up hope.
    GOP strategists also said their prospects appeared relatively bright for a seat in Texas that former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay once held, and expressed hope they could yet win the battle to replace disgraced former GOP Rep. Mark Foley in Florida.
    The Republican candidate in Texas, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, is running as a write-in contender after the party lost a court fight to replace DeLay’s name on the ballot.
    In Florida, Foley’s name is on the ballot, even though he quit Sept. 29 after being confronted with sexually inappropriate computer messages he had sent to teenage congressional pages. The replacement candidate is state Rep. Joe Negron, and under state law, votes cast for Foley will count for him.
    The district is strongly Republican, and the GOP House campaign committee has spent more than $1.6 million in the past month trying to save the seat.
    At the same time, House Democrats have expanded their advertising efforts into numerous races once thought safe for Republicans. Strategists in both parties said nearly 20 Republican-held seats could tip either way in a belt of states stretching from Connecticut through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
    One of the most endangered is Rep. Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania, accused of abusing his ex-mistress. According to one person familiar with the case, he agreed to pay her about $500,000 in a settlement last year that contained a powerful incentive for her to keep quiet until after Election Day. Cynthia Ore has received part of the money, and will lose some of the rest if she talks publicly about the issue before then, this source said.
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Michael Rubinkam in Allentown, Pa., contributed to this report.

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