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Democrats highlight Bush, 'extremism' in House battle

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Midterm battle lines drawn
  • NEW: A top House Democrat has cast the GOP and Tea Party activists as extremists
  • Non-partisan analysts predict substantial GOP gains in November
  • President Obama's approval rating stands at 47 percent
  • 50 percent of voters say they are likely to vote for a candidate who opposes the president

Washington (CNN) -- Bush-loving extremists.

That, in simplified form, was the label hung on Republicans Friday by the Democrat charged with spearheading his party's 2010 House election campaign.

Saddled with a sagging economy and lower presidential approval ratings, Democratic Congressional Campaign Chairman Chris Van Hollen laid out his party's apparent plan of attack for the looming midterm elections.

Addressing reporters, Van Hollen cast this fall's campaign as less a referendum on President Barack Obama and more a choice between much-needed change and a return to the policies of former President George W. Bush and a Republican Party increasingly under the sway of extreme Tea Party activists.

"I can assure you that despite the Washington summer political chatter, reports of the House Democrats' demise are greatly exaggerated," he declared.

Democrats intend to focus on a legislative record that includes passage of health care reform, the financial rescue, Wall Street reform, student loans and the drawdown in Iraq, according to a DCCC statement.

But, Van Hollen said, they will also argue that Republicans have nominated either Tea Party candidates or "retreads" from the Bush years who want to return to the "reckless fiscal policies of previous administration."

Van Hollen conceded that much of the country's political energy is on the right, but contended that conservatives like Fox News host Glenn Beck and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will damage the GOP in November by turning off independent voters.

"There is no doubt that there is a power to those voices," he said. But "I would just ask the American people again to listen to where they are coming from."

Van Hollen stressed his theory again when asked about this weekend's Beck rally in the nation's capital, saying that "Americans are going to be turned off by the outrageous rhetoric on the right."

Van Hollen contended that the strong conservative rhetoric will be a "turnoff to the sensible center and the people who constitute the key independent voters in ... swing districts."

"These guys are way off on the right," he asserted.

Attempting to add grass-roots muscle to their message, House Democrats have said they are pushing supporters to knock on more than 200,000 doors nationwide this fall.

The initiative comes as President Barack Obama's approval rating stands at 47 percent, against 51 percent who say they disapprove of how he is handling his job. The latter number matches his highest disapproval rating, set in March, when 51 percent also gave him a thumbs-down.

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released this month, 50 percent of voters say they are likely to vote for a candidate who opposes the president.

A top House Republican boasted Thursday that Republicans are already positioned to take control of the House, and argued the Democrats' political position will only worsen as election day approaches.

California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top recruiter of GOP candidates and chief Republican whip in the House, told reporters there are "more than enough seats" to win, and added, "I think the map is getting bigger by the day."

McCarthy, who has traveled to more than 50 districts so far during the August recess, said the economy and the president's poll numbers are dragging down Democrats' chances of keeping their majority.

On Obama, the GOP leader predicted, "I think his approval rating will be even lower" by November and said the overall size of the political playing field will expand as a result.

McCarthy said over 80 House seats are now in play, noting that is more than twice the number Republicans need to take the majority.

Ticking through many of the competitive races across the country, McCarthy predicted even more seats currently leaning Democratic -- like Rep. David Wu's in Oregon and Rep Carolyn McCarthy's in New York -- will begin shifting toward the Republican column.

McCarthy maintained there is a "panic mode inside the Democratic Party from the Democrats themselves" and said party leaders would soon have to make tough choices about which candidates deserved resources and who would be cut off.

Another top House Republican, GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana, in a call with reporters Thursday, touted the more than 500 events he said Republicans have held so far over the recess. He and other Republicans point out that the intensity of voters is driven by economic anxiety.

"Everywhere I go its about jobs and spending, it's about the fact that economic policies of this administration have failed and the American people are looking for a new approach that will bring certainty," Pence said.

Democrats dismissed GOP assessments about the midterms, arguing it is just a case of Republicans prematurely "measuring the drapes" before Election Day.

"In Kevin McCarthy-land, every seat in Congress is in play," Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the House Democratic campaign arm, shot back Thursday. He said that some of the so-called "Young Gun" candidates who were handpicked by McCarthy and other GOP leaders are not as strong as they are billed to be.

"With all the bluster and all the promises the NRCC has made, the bottom line is that they now face some tough decisions about which of their seriously flawed candidates with anemic fundraising have disqualified themselves as viable candidates and have to be abandoned," Rudominer said.

Charlie Cook, a non-partisan political analyst, estimated on Friday a net Republican between 35 and 45 seats, "with the odds of an outcome larger than that range greater than the odds of a lesser outcome."

Stu Rothenberg, another top non-partisan analyst, has predicted a likely GOP gain of 28 to 33 seats, though he has also noted that "larger gains in excess of 40 seats are quite possible."

Republicans need to pick up 39 seats to win control of the House.

While Republicans repeat the mantra that the ailing economy will drive voters to make the midterms a "change" election, they remain vague about any detailed proposals they will unveil this fall to turn the jobs picture around.

McCarthy, who has been heading up an online listening project for Republicans to draft their policy agenda, will say only that it will include a "fundamental government reform package" and will come out sometime next month.

Both McCarthy and Pence pointed to the economic speech by House Republican Leader John Boehner on Tuesday as an indication of what types of policies they will espouse in the final weeks before the election. But beyond calling for the resignations of top Obama economic advisors, Boehner's speech gave little in the way of specific proposals.

CNN's Deirdre Walsh, Alan Silverleib and Peter Hamby contributed to this report