Democrats took aim on Monday at ending Republican control of the U.S. Congress, as a bitter election fight fueled by discontent with President George W. Bush and the Iraq war ticked down to the last frantic hours.
Both parties fired up get-out-the-vote operations designed to bring core supporters to the polls on Tuesday, and sent out their biggest stars to appeal to swing voters who could tip the balance in close races around the country.
Bush, hampered by low approval ratings and confined to appearances in Republican areas to avoid alienating independents, was snubbed by the Republican candidate for governor in Florida who did not appear with the president at a Pensacola rally.
Opinion polls show Democrats could recapture House control for the first time since 1994, with Senate control hinging on several races that are too close to call. Republicans hoped their vaunted program to identify and turn out supporters would limit their losses.
Bush pointed to polls showing Republicans gaining ground in the campaign’s last days and said his message that Democrats would raise taxes and give up in Iraq was sinking in.
“I knew we were going to finish strong, because I knew that when the American people paid attention to the two most important issues they would understand we stand with them,” Bush said in Florida.
Two opinion polls on Monday showed Democrats still held a double-digit advantage when likely voters were asked which party’s candidate they would support. The new polls contradicted two surveys released on Sunday that showed Republicans closing the gap on Democrats.
A CNN poll gave Democrats an edge of 20 points, 58 percent to 38 percent. A new Fox News poll put the Democratic lead at 13 points.
“Elections tend to tighten as you get closer to the day. But I feel confident about where we are in each of these individual races that we have focused our attention on,” Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi told an ABC radio affiliate in Portland, Oregon.
“All of this will be turnout. That, of course, is the story of the next 24 hours,” said Pelosi, who would likely become the first woman House speaker if Democrats take control — a rallying point for Republicans who assail her liberal views.
All 435 House seats, 33 Senate seats and 36 governorships are at stake in Tuesday’s voting, with Democrats needing to pick up 15 House seats and six Senate seats to seize control of both houses of Congress.
About 50 contested House races and 10 Senate races are the chief battleground.
Polls will begin to close at 6 p.m. EST (2300 GMT) although it could be hours before results are known in many crucial races.
“I think you’re going to see some surprises,” Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, who faces a strong Democratic challenge, told reporters.
Independent analysts predict Democrats could gain at least 20 and as many as 40 House seats from Republicans, while Senate control could hinge on tight races for Republican-held seats in Missouri, Virginia, Tennessee, Montana and Rhode Island.
Democrats probably need to win at least four of those races, and USA Today/Gallup polls on Monday showed Republicans with slight leads in Tennessee and Virginia. Democratic challengers led in Missouri, Montana and Rhode Island.
Both parties counted on star power to sway undecided voters in the final hours. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned for Democrats in New York and Virginia.
“We’ve got to get our votes out,” Clinton said in Rochester, New York.
Bush campaigned for candidates in Florida, Arkansas and Texas. White House political adviser Karl Rove expressed irritation at the decision by Republican candidate for governor Charlie Crist to attend a rally in Palm Beach instead of joining Bush.
“Let’s see how many people show up in Palm Beach on 24 hours notice versus 8 or 9,000 people in Pensacola,” Rove said.
Democrats kept the focus on the war in Iraq, which has dominated the campaign-trail debate. Public unhappiness with the 3-1/2-year-old war, in which more than 2,800 U.S. military have died, and Bush’s leadership in the conflict have fueled the Democratic surge this year.
“There is no doubt Iraq is a big piece of why people want change,” said Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the campaign committee for House Democrats. “The bigger piece is, people want new direction, and Republicans are offering stay the course.”
(Additional reporting by Kay Henderson in Iowa, Thomas Ferraro in Washington, Steve Holland and Tabassum Zakaria in Florida)