Luis M. Alvarez, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — In one Democratic ad, a grunting, helmet-wearing actor portraying GOP Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey, a former football lineman, physically blocks seniors from their Medicare benefits.
Another TV ad accuses Massachusetts House GOP hopeful Richard Tisei, an openly gay state senator, of being "too extreme" and links him to the tea party as it flashes pictures of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich.
A Republican spot pounds Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., for his state's high unemployment, showing a barren factory floor and blaming him for backing President Barack Obama's "wasteful" economic stimulus bill.
Democratic House challenger Christie Vilsack of Iowa is accused in an ad of backing Medicare cuts and Obama's health care overhaul. "She's fighting for Obama, not you," the narrator says.
With the Nov. 6 election fast approaching, Democrats and Republicans dueling for House control are focusing on poll-tested themes in their attacks. Yet even as Republicans gauge what impact presidential nominee Mitt Romney's recent struggles might have on House races, the outlook seems essentially unchanged. Democrats may gain a few seats and perhaps do a bit better than was expected weeks ago, but they seem unlikely to grab the additional 25 seats needed to take over the chamber.
Of the 435 House districts, only about 60 are considered competitive and roughly 30 others seem potentially in play, evidence of the limited targets both parties have for pickups. Unlike the national voting trends that produced large House gains by Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and then by Republicans in 2010, analysts don't see either side's candidates enjoying a decisive political wind this time.
"The electorate appears to be weary, weary of promises and weary of any new, bold policy directions," said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied Congress. "There's no groundswell of public support" for either side.
Republicans controlled a peak of 242 House seats in this Congress, their high-water mark since just after World War II.
Several longtime lawmakers are in tight races, including 26-year veteran Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., serving in his 20th year. But two dozen of the toughest contests involve members of the House GOP freshman class of 2010, when tea party fervor helped sweep 87 of them into office.
Though freshmen are perennially among the most vulnerable, the last election's conservative crop helped drive House leaders into headline-grabbing showdowns with Obama over federal spending and borrowing. Democrats are trying to cast them and House Republicans overall as obstructionists with extreme views.
Some freshmen show little sign of backing down. "I'm a constitutional conservative standing up for the principles and values of this country," said Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., one of the House GOP's leading money raisers.
Others are projecting softer messages.
While Rep. Frank Guinta, R-N.H., called himself "a tested conservative" and spoke of being "fed up with Washington" in 2010, his 2012 ads have focused on the rising federal debt and say, "My No. 1 priority is helping people find jobs."
One GOP advantage this year is money, lots of it.
Republican House candidates have raised $373 million since this campaign cycle began in 2011, and that's about $100 million more than Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP's campaign arm, has spent about $20 million since last year in independent expenditures for or against candidates, well above the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's $14 million, the center says.
More money is certain to come from outside groups that can legally spend unlimited funds to help candidates.
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