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GOP control of Congress is on the line on Election Day ’06

Bush campaigning furiously around nation

    WASHINGTON — Republican control of Congress was on the line Tuesday in an election colored by voters’ dismay over the Iraq war and misbehavior in Washington.
    At stake in the midterm election were all 435 House seats, 33 in the Senate, 36 races for governor, ballot measures on gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, the minimum wage and more — plus the overarching fate of President Bush’s agenda in the last two years of his presidency.
    In a climate inhospitable if not toxic for incumbents, Democrats hoped finally to answer the rout that drove them from legislative power in 1994. Even their opponents conceded Democrats were certain to make gains and, despite brave words for public consumption, Republicans worried that control of the House would slip from their hands.
    Even Senate control was up in the air, but a tougher climb for Democrats.
    Unsurprisingly, the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties talked optimistically as voters went to the polls Tuesday.
    ‘‘I believe we’re going to defy the experts and maintain our majority in the House and the Senate,’’ GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman said on CBS’s ‘‘The Early Show.’’ Countered Howard Dean, his Democratic opposite number: ‘‘If you want change, we can give you change.’’
    That’s just what 60-year-old Ron Bowman, a Democrat from Windsor, Conn., had on his mind when he went out to vote first thing Tuesday. ‘‘It was a chance for a change,’’ he said, after casting his ballot for Democratic senatorial candidate Ned Lamont over incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman, running as an independent.
    Another voter who echoed Bowman’s sentiment, Shirley Swanson of Windsor, said that she, too, voted for Lamont. ‘‘He’s not Lieberman. Joe isn’t listening to us,’’ she said.
    Bush flew to his home state of Texas to vote, finishing a restrained five-day round of campaigning mostly in GOP strongholds. His presence on the stump was a mixed blessing for candidates attracted to the attention and fundraising prowess generated by a president but nervous about being associated too closely — or even seen with — an unpopular leader.
    Charlie Crist, a Republican running to succeed Bush’s brother Jeb as Florida governor, bailed from a planned appearance with Bush in a safely Republican section of the Panhandle, an embarrassing snub on the eve of voting.
    Bush gamely pressed on with lacerating attacks on Democrats at that Pensacola rally of 7,000 loud supporters. ‘‘The Democrat philosophy is this: If it breathes, tax it, and if it stops breathing, find its children and tax them,’’ Bush shouted.
    Former President Clinton responded sharply in kind: ‘‘They can’t run anything right,’’ he said, taunting Republicans about Iraq, Hurricane Katrina recovery and scandal in Washington.
    Democrat Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary, author and less than smooth campaigner, invited Clinton to his side to close out a Virginia Senate campaign he was given little chance of winning at the outset.
    His tight race with Sen. George Allen became emblematic of unexpected Democratic opportunities in state after state. ‘‘I have a strong feeling that on Wednesday morning the White House is going to wake up and look across at the Capitol dome and say, ’We got a problem,’’’ Webb told a crowd pressed into a Roanoke firehouse.
    White House press secretary Tony Snow, appearing Tuesday on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, argued that the Democrats’ only stance is ‘‘literally running around and heckling the president rather than trying to think seriously about how to deal with Osama bin Laden or a global war on terror.’’
    ‘‘You gotta wonder if they’re a serious political party,’’ Snow said. He also criticized a Democratic proposal for dealing with the Iraq war by saying, ‘‘We do, quote, phased redeployment, what we do is we invite a whole lot more September 11ths.’’
    Democrats needed to gain 15 House seats or six in the Senate to form a majority, a development that would give them a stronger voice against a war that has cost more than 2,800 U.S. lives and has come to be seen by most Americans as misbegotten.
    Sharply critical of Bush’s prosecution of the war throughout the campaign, Democrats nevertheless lack a common position on how to get the U.S. out.
    Both parties sent thousands of volunteers to competitive districts to mobilize voters and assembled legal teams to watch for irregularities in balloting systems that continue to be error-prone six years after the hanging-chad debacle of 2000.
    The Justice Department sent a record 850 poll watchers to 69 cities and counties to safeguard against fraud, discrimination or system malfunctions in tight races.
    Republicans have been the acknowledged champions at getting supporters out to polling stations, a critical skill in midterm elections when turnout is typically low, around 40 percent, and one that heightened suspense over which party would hold the levers of power at the end of the counting.
    Evangelical conservatives are the foundation of that mobilization and motivation drive, but their own enthusiasm was in question as they faced the prospect of a president too politically weak to take forward their agenda and looked back on a campaign tainted by the congressional page sex scandal and more.
    Even so, some final opinion polls indicated a tightening race; others suggested the Democrats were still far in front in national sentiment.
    At least two dozen Republican House seats were at risk. Among GOP-held open seats, those in Arizona, Colorado, New York, Ohio and Iowa seemed most vulnerable. Republican Reps. John Hostettler, Chris Chocola and Mike Sodrel of Indiana; Charles Taylor of North Carolina; Curt Weldon, Don Sherwood and Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania; and Charles Bass of New Hampshire were in particularly difficult re-election struggles.
    In Senate races, Republican incumbents Mike DeWine in Ohio and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania appeared in deepest trouble; Sens. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Conrad Burns in Montana somewhat less so.
    Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, in line to become the first woman speaker in history if Democrats win, was in Washington after a weekend of campaigning for candidates in Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
    The campaign’s final hours brought fresh evidence of the enormous cost.
    Spending by the two national parties surged in the final week as Democrats and Republicans invested in television commercials designed to sway the outcome in more than 60 House races and 10 Senate contests. In all, the two parties have spent about $225 million thus far in campaign activities independent of the candidates themselves.

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