Challengers are beginning to hammer congressional incumbents for backing Wall Street moguls over Main Street taxpayers in the evolving investment-industry bailout effort, further complicating Capitol Hill efforts to rescue the economy.
Republican Michael Delavar says he's repositioning himself as a strict free marketer and will assail incumbent Democrat Rep. Brian Baird for supporting the plan, even if the final package includes the protection for homeowners and limits on Wall Street executive compensation that Mr. Baird seeks.
"Is it appropriate to take the American people and make them liable for these [Wall Street] debts? No," said Mr. Delavar, who launched his campaign as an anti-Iraq war candidate in Washington state's Republican-leaning 3rd District and has struggled for support from the state GOP.
In races across the country, challengers to both Republicans and Democrats are unleashing similar lines of attack, highlighting the precarious position of lawmakers caught between a public hostile toward a Wall Street bailout and an severely faltering economy.
Half of voters -50 percent - say it is better for the government to let the companies that made financial mistakes go bankrupt than jump in with a federal handout, according to a Rasmussen Reports survey released Thursday.
The poll showed just 30 percent of voters think the federal government should rescue the financial markets and 63 percent worry that the federal government will do too much to respond to the crisis.
Congressional offices have been flooded with phone calls and e-mail from constituents opposed to the plan. House officials sent out an alert saying e-mail traffic was so heavy it jammed their system.
"So far this issue hasn't been central in the campaign, but we anticipate that whichever way any members vote, their opponents will hit them hard," said Mary Vought, a spokeswoman for Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican and member of the House Financial Services Committee.
"If you vote for the bailout, does that mean you support Wall Street over Main Street? If you vote against the bailout, does that mean you're ignoring a potential economic crisis of Great Depression proportions?"
Mrs. Bachmann said a vote for a bill that smacks of welfare for Wall Street is virtual suicide. "Absolutely, it cannot be seen as and cannot be a bailout," she told The Washington Times.
On Wall Street, several hundred union protesters decried federal intervention on behalf of corporate America.
"We want our tax dollars used to provide a hand up for the millions of working people who live on Main Street and not a handout to a privileged band of overpaid executives," AFL-CIO National President John Sweeney told an enthusiastic crowd of yelping hard hats, transit workers, machinists and teachers.
In Oregon, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is using a variation on the economic meltdown theme against incumbent Sen. Gordon H. Smith, saying the Republican favored converting Social Security to private savings accounts and investing the money in stocks peddled by Wall Street.
But Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley has not directly gone after Mr. Smith on the Social Security aspect or on the administration's investment industry rescue plan.
Republican National Campaign Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher suspects the reason many Senate challengers are hanging back is that incumbents in both parties may emerge "looking senatorial, having stepped up and solved a problem - so challengers are tending to wait till the dust settles after a vote on whatever bailout plan emerges."
Club for Growth President Pat Toomey thinks the safer political vote for incumbents, especially Republicans, is a "nay" because it separates them from President Bush, whose job approval rating is somewhere below freezing on the Fahrenheit scale. It also allows incumbents "to rail against corporate bailouts and puts them on the popular side of the issue," said Mr. Toomey.
In eastern Pennsylvania, Democrat Sam Bennett used the bailout issue to hit incumbent Republican Rep. Charlie Dent for filling his campaign coffers with contributions from the financial-services industry.
"For the last eight days, the foundation of our economy has been shaken, and Republican Charles Dent hasn't even issued a statement," Bennett communications director Gary Ritterstein said in a press release this week. "And now, we find out that he takes over $600,000 from the very people that are responsible. I guess he wouldn't want to put those campaign contributions at risk."
Dent campaign manager Shawn Millan called the criticism "an unfair attack," adding that Mrs. Bennett violated the call by presidential nominees Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain not to politicize the economic rescue.
"She's trying to make a linkage," Mr. Millan said. "It's an unfair attack until she says something about the hundreds of thousands of dollars [Democratic presidential nominee] Sen. Barack Obama has received from the same people."
Rep. Dennis Moore, a Kansas Democrat and Financial Services Committee member, said the "crisis is the result of a combination of irresponsible financiers pushing the limits of the marketplace, and the administration that failed to properly regulate the financiers' actions in the public interest. Until 2007, Congress did not provide effective oversight of these regulators or of this marketplace."
Mr. Moore's Republican opponent, State Sen. Nick Jordan, blamed Congress and Mr. Moore in particular, arguing that the credit system's thrombosis was triggered by the failure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and their lobbying of Congress to shovel out more and more high-risk loans.
"These two government-sponsored entities have been propped up by Congress for years," Mr. Jordan said. "This includes Dennis Moore, who has served on the Financial Services Committee for 10 years and who's received over $30,000 in contributions from them."