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GOP Strategist: Election to Be Won in the Middle

As election season heats up, there are arguments over the new health care bill, whether to end the Bush tax cuts for the country's highest earners, and the escalating national debt.

But in the end, the trouble for President Barack Obama and his party, says CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante, is all about the state of the economy.

With the lingering recession and unemployment hovering over 9 percent, discontent over the economy threatens the Democrats' majorities in Congress in November.

It would seem to be the Republicans' race to lose. But they can't win it alone.

On "Face the Nation yesterday, Washington Post columnist Dan Balz said the Republican base is highly motivated, and that the party is focusing on issues - the economy, the size and scope of government, and the deficit - that can unify their coalition and also reach out to independent voters.

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On Tuesday, several states (including Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, and a run-off in Georgia) are holding primaries to determine who the parties' candidates will be in November for seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Primaries typically attract the most hard-core members of their parties - and for the Republicans in particular, this means supporters of the far-right fringe and Tea Party candidates.

On CBS' "The Early Show" this morning, Republican strategist Kevin Madden said that despite the Democrats' problems and Mr. Obama's sagging poll numbers, winning over moderate and independent voters is key for the Republicans to win control in Congress.

"These midterm elections are really going to be decided in the middle," Madden told "Early Show" anchor Erica Hill. "And right now those independent voters that were a big part of the Democrats' successful coalition of winning in 2008, they've abandoned the White House and they've abandoned Democrats, in large part because of the spending, because of the deficits, because of the very-left-of-center agenda.

"I think where Republicans feel we have an opportunity is talking to those voters and persuading them that the Democrats have taken the country in the wrong direction, the country's on the wrong track, that we're spending too much money, deficits are going too high, and that we can do a better job.

"Right now, we have to go out there and talk about a proactive agenda but it is a very good place to be right now when you're the alternative to a Democrat agenda," he said.

The Republican line of attack was demonstrated yesterday on "Meet the Press," when Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, "The American people are screaming at the top of their lungs to Washington: stop, stop the spending, stop the job-killing policies."

The White House message? That Republicans would take the country back to President Bush's economic policies.

At an Illinois fundraiser, President Barack Obama said of the opposition party, "They have not come up with a single solitary idea that is any different from the policies of George W. Bush, the policies that they had in place for eight years before we had a crisis. What they are betting on is amnesia. They are betting that you don't remember that they were in charge all this time."

In an interview with CBS' "The Early Show," Politico's Shira Toeplitz suggested that voters won't believe the recession actually began under President Bush's watch. But her more salient point is that, whether voters care or not who got the country into its economic mess, it is now Mr. Obama's mess. "He's in office now," she said.

Also appearing on "The Early Show," Democratic strategist Tanya Acker said it was important for the party both to keep sounding the message of not wanting to go back to past Republican policies, but also running against current Republican candidates.

"I think it's very evident that we're running against a group of Republican candidates, in large part, who really position themselves at an extreme end of the right wing, which is really where not most of the country is," Acker told Hill. "You're talking about candidates who want to do things like take the country back to a time before Social Security, who want to really overturn a lot of the reforms that the country's really behind.

"So, I think what Democrats have to do is talk about what it is they're standing for and why it is the country doesn't want to go back to a time when, frankly, a lot of us were much worse off.

"We're seeing the president is having some troubles in the polls - he's certainly polling lower than he has in any time during his presidency, which is not unusual for any president at this point in his term," Acker said.

"But I think that where we're really seeing President Obama be effective is in fundraising. And in order for Democrats to get that message out there, there's no question that they're going to need a lot of money. Because, again, as Kevin pointed out, the real competition is for moderates, is for independents. In order for Democrats to successfully get them back on board, they're going to have to explain why the alternatives are far too extreme."

Will a particular primary victor matter? Madden said that the substance of Republican arguments is what will attract moderates.

"We can say, look, the Democrats wanted to spend more, grow the size of government," Madden said. "We presented alternatives during this entire debate that said we're for smaller government, lower taxes and for less spending, and that we're the better party to lead the country in the right direction."