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Axelrod: 2010 will be a 'tough' election

1. White House senior adviser David Axelrod repeatedly described the coming midterm election as "tough" but insisted that it would be a choice between the two parties rather than a referendum on President Obama.

"We've come through two very difficult years," said Axelrod in a sit-down with a handful of reporters -- including the Fix -- at the White House. "Two years ago I could have told you this was going to be a tough year," he added at another point.

But Axelrod quickly pivoted to note that the president's active presence on the campaign trail has caused some narrowing in the enthusiasm gap between the parties -- particularly in targeted states -- and that voters were beginning to grasp the implications of the Nov. 2 vote.

"Our mission is to get people energized and understanding there are real stakes in this election," Axelrod said.

His comments come as Obama embarks on a four-day cross-country campaign swing that will see the president stump for Democratic candidates and raise money for party committees in Oregon, California, Nevada and Minnesota. Early next week, Obama will be in Rhode Island for a fundraiser to benefit the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and is expected to be back on the campaign trail for the final weekend before the Nov. 2 election.

The White House has long insisted -- and Axelrod put the argument forward again on Tuesday -- that the November election is about a choice between a vision for moving the country forward and one that would take the country in the opposite direction.

"It is natural and easy in a midterm election particularly in difficult times to treat the election as a referendum on current conditions," Axelrod said. "That's not what it is. This is choice between two fundamentally different approaches."

He repeatedly cited Texas Sen. John Cornyn's (R) comment that a Republican-controlled Congress would seek to repeal financial regulatory reform as an example of how GOP policies would be a "prescription for problems" for the American people.

Axelrod refused to make predictions about what victory might look like for Democrats in an election where most political prognosticators believe the party is headed to broad-scale losses at the House and Senate level.

"We'd like to see Democrats in control of Congress at the end of this process," Axelrod offered. "I am not going to sit here and set the parameters for you. I am quite sure you will set them for us."

2. Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk (R) and state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) came out swinging Tuesday night in their second debate of the Senate race, but the face-off that was largely devoid of the fireworks that marked the pair's showdown on NBC's "Meet the Press" earlier this month.

The hour-long debate, which was moderated by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, centered on the topics that have been the mainstays of the campaign thus far for President Obama's former Senate seat. Giannoulias hammered Kirk over his truthfulness, while Kirk slammed Giannoulias on issues of his own character.

As the debate kicked off, Giannoulias contended that, "I've always told the truth," a subtle jab at Kirk's misstatements of his military record. Kirk, meanwhile, argued that Giannoulias's "entire campaign is about my career."

The two sparred briefly on Kirk's military background; when asked by Giannoulias whether he'd been shot at or not while serving in the military, Kirk responded: "I put my entire life on the line."

Giannoulias repeatedly referred to former Bush White House adviser Karl Rove and the conservative outside group, American Crossroads. Echoing the White House's position on the issue, Giannoulias said that Rove and groups making independent expenditures "are having a dangerous impact on the future of our democracy," adding later that Kirk "helped Karl Rove destroy the economy, and now Karl Rove is repaying the favor."

The race, one of The Fix's "Big Senate Six", remains one of the closest and ugliest campaigns of the cycle -- and one in which both national parties as well as the White House have much at stake.

Polling suggests the race is a pure toss-up.

3. A new Democratic poll shows Democrat Jack Conway surging in the Kentucky Senate race.

The Bennett, Petts and Normington poll, conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and shared with The Fix, shows Conway at 49 percent and Republican Rand Paul at 47 percent -- Conway's best showing in a poll since late June.

The poll was conducted Sunday and Monday, after Conway's campaign launched a controversial new ad that questioned several college-era antics surrounding Rand Paul's (R) Christian faith.

Democrats familiar with the race also suggest Paul's performance at the debate -- in which he refused to shake Conway's hand in the wake of the ad -- might also have impacted the numbers.

The last poll to show Conway with a higher share of the vote was a Benenson Strategy Group poll for Conway's campaign four months ago. It showed Conway at 48 percent and Paul at 46.

The Real Clear Politics polling average gives Paul a three-point edge. And Republicans were decidedly skeptical about the numbers, insisting that while the race is close, Paul is still ahead.

Kentucky is considered the Democrats' best shot at taking a Republican seat in two weeks time. Both the DSCC and National Republican Senatorial Committee are spending heavily in the state. Senate Democrats have dropped $957,000 on independent expenditures while the NRSC has spent nearly $1.4 million.

4. Two new Republican polls show the California gubernatorial race in a dead heat, while a third media survey shows state Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) pulling ahead.

An internal poll released by the Republican Governors Association shows former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (R) tied with Brown at 46 percent each. Those results were echoed by a Wilson Research poll (R) showing Whitman taking 45 percent to Brown's 44 percent.

A Fox News poll, meanwhile, showed Brown taking 48 percent to Whitman's 43 percent among likely voters.

The flurry of new polls came as both sides released hard-hitting new TV ads in the race.

Brown's camp released a new spot splicing together clips of Whitman delivering nearly the same talking points, word-for-word, as outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who is deeply unpopular in the state.

The opening of the ad features a flip of Schwarzenegger saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," followed by a clip of Whitman saying almost the same thing.

Whitman's latest ad slams Brown for being a "puppet" of labor unions: "Unions have spent over $20 million against Meg Whitman. Millions in cash for Brown. And the teachers' union just spent millions more attacking Meg. Jerry Brown, again? He sure comes with strings attached."

5. Former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) is up with a new ad that features her running as she talks about her open seat race against Rep. Paul Hodes (D).

"On a good run, I get to reflect on what you've been telling me and how important it is that we change Washington," says Ayotte as an image of her -- sporting a green Boston Red Sox hat(!) -- is shown on screen.

She details Hodes' votes for "Nancy Pelosi's trillion-dollar health care bill" and the "wasteful stimulus that failed to create jobs."

As the ad ends, Ayotte -- while running -- says she is "running for you". (Get it? Running!)

The commercial, which is running on WMUR as well as Boston broadcast television starting this morning, calls to mind a very similar ad run by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ran during his 2008 presidential campaign. (Both ads were produced by media consultant Larry McCarthy.)

Since narrowly winning a Sept. 14 primary, Ayotte has been on cruise control with polling showing her comfortably ahead. Neither national party committee has spent any money on independent expenditures in the race, a sign they don't view it as closely contested.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R) is retiring.

With Felicia Sonmez and Aaron Blake

By Chris Cillizza  | October 20, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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