WASHINGTON—To hear national Democratic leaders tell it just a few weeks ago, this year's congressional elections were mainly about preserving Social Security, expanding Medicare and ending GOP mismanagement of the federal budget. But now, with the latest cascade of business scandals, they are humming a different tune.
At the urging of party leaders, Democrats around the country spent this week's congressional recess back home trying to cast the election as a choice between friends and foes of corporate corruption and greed.
WorldCom Inc., whose accounting shenanigans reignited the issue of corporate wrongdoing.
In other cases, Democrats focused on broader questions of corporate accountability.
In New Hampshire, a Democrat attacked the House Republican incumbent for opposing legislation that might have prevented a local company from evading U.S. taxes.
In South Dakota, a Democratic senator departed from his previous emphasis on local issues to unveil a wide-ranging proposal to crack down on irresponsible corporate executives.
And Democratic officials have recommended that party candidates everywhere spotlight the voting records of Republicans on corporate reform measures.
After months of groping without success for a campaign theme of national resonance, the Democratic leaders clearly are hoping that the snowballing revelations about corporate scandals will finally tilt the campaign playing field in their direction.
"The Enrons and WorldComs have contributed significantly to an important shift in the national political environment, not just by putting voters in a more populist mood generally but also by helping to tie together issues like retirement security, jobs and a shaky economy in a way that benefits Democrats," said Jim Jordan, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Republicans are skeptical, saying this is just the latest in a series of efforts by Democrats to find a "silver bullet" issue that would nationalize the 2002 campaign.
"First it was energy, then the economy, then airport security and Social Security," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a memo to Republican candidates. "Having failed to gain political mileage on these issues, Democrats have now staked their hopes for winning this November on corporate accountability."
Independent analysts say the Democrats may have some trouble gaining traction on the issue unless it is coupled with serious instability in the economy.
That's in part because Democrats themselves have accepted corporate donations and been swept up in scandals involving companies such as Global Crossing Ltd., the troubled telecommunication firm.
"Most voters still see all politicians in the same light: They are all raising special interest money, all friends with the big fat cats," said Amy Walter, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
But Democrats remain confident they can score political gains by depicting Republicans as reluctant to respond to corporate abuses--and link that message to the stereotype of the GOP as the party of big business.
"If being for big corporations is not the first thing people think about the Republican Party, it is at least the second thing," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. "It is part of the Republican brand identity."
And despite their public bravado, Republicans are reacting defensively.
Forti's memo was a "Candidate Alert" sent just before the Fourth of July recess to arm Republicans with arguments about what legislation the House passed to strengthen pensions and corporate accounting. "The GOP takes a back seat to no one on this issue," the memo said with emphasis.
Some moderate Democrats are concerned that a stridently populist campaign will undercut the party's Clinton-era efforts to shed their image as being reflexively anti-business and hostile to policies that promote economic growth.