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Democrats say Bush popularity turned tide

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said President Bush
Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said President Bush "had some coattails."

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CNN's Paula Zahn talks to Rep. Dick Gephardt about what the Democrats learned from midterm election (November 6)
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CNN's Paula Zahn talks to Sen. Tom Daschle about how Democrats fared in election (November 6)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The two top Democrats in Congress said Wednesday that President Bush's popularity and the post-September 11 environment were largely responsible for the Republicans' sweeping Election Day victories.

The Republicans regained control of the Senate, making Sen. Tom Daschle's majority leadership position short-lived, and increased their majority in the House.

Daschle, D-South Dakota, said the president deserved "good credit" for the results, pointing out that he focused more on the war on terror and issues such as North Korea and Iraq, making it hard for the Democrats to break through on issues like the economy, health care and education.

"He campaigned hard in the states that he largely won two years ago. He had some coattails," Daschle said.

"It is significant when you have a president at a 65 percent rating. That is unusual," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri. "I think some of it is related to 9/11 and the people's reactions -- the people's desire to be united with the president in fighting against these issues, in trying to solve these issues."

Daschle said the Democrats had a relevant economic plan but said they "weren't successful" in getting media coverage for it.

"Without a doubt, that is still the issue regardless of the coverage it got," he said.

Gephardt said that "the Republicans had tremendous amounts of special interest money. The pharmaceutical companies spent probably $50 million or $60 million supporting all Republican candidates and that blurred a lot of the issue on prescription drugs."

The issues the Democrats focused on -- Social Security, jobs, prescription drugs, the economy, pension security -- won't go away, Gephardt said. "I think people in the days ahead are going to really wonder what has happened on those issues."

Gephardt is weighing whether to give up his leadership post following the party's losses in the House to concentrate on a still-unannounced bid for the White House in 2004.

"He's getting a sense of the landscape now," Gephardt aide Erik Smith said. "There is no one out there who could defeat him for minority leader. The question is what he will choose to do."

In an interview Wednesday morning from St. Louis, Gephardt told CNN it was too early for him to say what his next step would be.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic whip, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost, of Texas, are considered likely challengers for the minority leader post if Gephardt bows out. It's not clear if either of them or someone else would challenge Gephardt if he decides to seek re-election.

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