Facing a disgruntled electorate and bracing for losses in the November midterm elections, Democrats hope to make up ground by framing this year's campaign as a fight against Republicans who want to turn back the clock on progress.
Democratic strategists say the party's candidates should tout legislative victories, especially if Congress enacts health care reform in the coming weeks, and draw a stark contrast with a Republican desire to return to the era of President George W. Bush.
The game plan is designed to prevent the election from becoming a referendum on the party in power, which is almost always a losing bet during tough economic times. Democrats must convince voters that the health care overhaul will be beneficial and that President Obama's $787 billion stimulus program has worked before they can criticize Republicans for opposing the measures.
"Republicans will be on the ballot next November, not just Democrats. Voters will be choosing between two different records and two different paths," said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). "Our strategy is to ensure that voters make a choice when they enter the polling booth."
The strategy is in play in the Massachusetts special election to replace Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the long-serving Democrat who died in August. The first attack ad of the campaign, produced for Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley, blasted Republican Scott Brown for being "in lock step with Washington Republicans."
Ms. Coakley faces a tougher-than-expected contest Tuesday in the solidly blue state. Her ad flashes images of Mr. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and top Bush adviser Karl Rove, while warning that Mr. Brown favors tax cuts for the rich.
Polls show sinking approval ratings for Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats, but have not found a corresponding rise for Republicans.
The DSCC's Mr. Schultz said Republicans still suffer from a "battered brand."
"They presided in Washington as the economy collapsed, and health care costs skyrocketed and did nothing to address either. And with Democrats working hard to address all of the challenges facing the country, they have made it clear they want to reverse course and go backwards," he said. "We don't expect that to be a winning argument with voters."
Republican officials said that strategy ignores voters' dissatisfaction with the policies of the White House and the Democrat-led Congress. They cite polls showing a majority of Americans are skeptical of the health care legislation and disapprove of Mr. Obama's leadership on the issue.
A CBS News poll showed that the 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Mr. Obama is handling health care, with 36 percent approving and 10 percent unsure. The same poll showed that 82 percent of Americans think the economy is bad, up from 77 percent in December.
"This is a desperate political strategy from a party that has yet to come to grips with reality," said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Try as they might to distract from their own failures, Democrats will ultimately be held responsible for passing a radical agenda that has ignored the concerns of American families every step of the way."
White House senior political adviser David Axelrod, in a lengthy recent interview with the magazine National Journal, said Democrats have to hope that the economy rebounds by the fall. He said Congress should quickly pass another stimulus or "jobs bill" to boost spending on infrastructure projects and aid to cash-strapped states.
But he said Democratic candidates should focus on progress during Mr. Obama's first year in office, including laws that crack down on tobacco and credit card companies.
If Republicans "want to stand with the insurance industry on health care and protect the status quo, then let them defend that in an election," Mr. Axelrod told the magazine. "If they want to stand with the banks and the financial industries and protect the status quo, then let them explain that in an election."
In the interview, he invited Republicans to campaign on their record of fiscal integrity, as a budget surplus turned into a $1.3 trillion deficit under the Bush administration, when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House.
"We're certainly willing to have that discussion. The difference is that we'll have that discussion in the context of a campaign," he said. "We haven't — in the midst of a crisis — tried to campaign every day in the halls of Congress."