In close US mid-terms, GOP targets a tarnished Obama

Washington (AFP) - One month before Americans elect their representatives in Congress and state offices, Republicans have a clear if narrow edge as they pick away at President Barack Obama's tarnished record.

The commander-in-chief's critics have painted Obama as the orchestrator of big government, economic malaise, executive overreach and foreign policy fumbles -- a legacy they hope will help them take back the Senate from Democrats and expand the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

Overcoming the Democrats' 55-45 Senate advantage is a tall order, but most analysts and election modelers agree that Republicans have a better than even chance of gaining the six net seats necessary to flip the chamber -- and make misery out of Obama's final two years in office.

"I put it at 60 percent," forecaster Charlie Cook, editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said about Republican odds to win the Senate.

He and others point to Obama's underwater approval numbers as a key drag on Democrats, many of whom are loath to hit the campaign trail with an unpopular leader.

- 'Difficult climb' for Democrats -

Presidential support has dipped so low that it will be "an incredibly difficult climb for the Democratic candidates" running for reelection in battleground states, said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who did analysis for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.

Democrats have already conceded three Senate seats, in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, leaving Republicans just three shy of their goal.

Analysts see Republicans potentially snatching seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa and Louisiana as well. If Democrats don't hold some of those states, they will lose the Senate.

"It's on a knife's edge," said veteran Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg.

With Obama challenged by a swarm of crises abroad, Republicans are hammering him as a feckless leader exposing the nation to danger.

In a flood of advertising and speeches, Republicans have unloaded on Obama policies, arguing that he has infringed on constitutional freedoms and religious liberties while coming up short on economic recovery.

"Many have labeled this mid-term election a referendum on the policies of President Obama. In many ways it is," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told a Washington audience Thursday.

"The federal government has boundaries, and when it oversteps them, it's encroaching on your personal freedom and your God-given liberty to decide what's right for your own life."

Swing state Democrats have scrambled to avoid painting this year's election as a referendum on Obama, saying it is about them and their challengers.

In the Iowa heartland, House Democrat Bruce Braley, in a tight Senate race against Republican Joni Ernst, blasted her for pushing a "radical Tea Party agenda" that fails the working class, women, and the environment.

But Obama gave fodder to Republicans who have savaged him for his policies. At an economic speech Thursday in Chicago, he stressed that while he is not on the ballot in November, "make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them."

Obama nonetheless learned good news Friday when officials reported unemployment dipped to 5.9 percent, its lowest level since 2008.

- Frustration with Obamacare -

Republicans across the board are pushing more jobs and tighter border security, but they often distil their frustration into a single, vexing policy: Obamacare.

The Affordable Care Act marked a historic reform bid by Obama, but Republicans took it as socialized medicine that drowns working families in costlier premiums.

"It has done everything but make health care affordable," according to an ad by Arkansas congressman Tom Cotton, who is challenging Senator Mark Pryor and accused his rival of casting the "deciding vote" for Obamacare.

While Newhouse conceded Obamacare was no longer considered a game changer, he noted that some Republicans were still using it as a campaign dog whistle to rally conservatives.

"Obamacare is shorthand for big government bureaucracy, government takeover of health care," Newhouse said.

But Greenberg branded the Republican assault on the Affordable Care Act as weak, especially because many constituents see benefits to the reform.

"It's not big enough to decide elections," he said.

With Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Ebola on the boil, foreign policy has emerged this year in a way rarely seen in the mid-terms.

"The way it's effecting the election is whether he is seen to be a good president, and foreign policy is turning out to be a much bigger factor in that than we had expected," Greenberg said.

Sensing the danger of a Democratic majority slipping away in the Senate, popular former president Bill Clinton was slated to return Monday to his home state of Arkansas to rally the faithful.

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