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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Helped by high unemployment and voter rage, Republicans are winning the war over who should steer the U.S. economy with a superior messaging strategy that has confounded the White House and its Democratic allies.
Republicans have successfully blamed Democrats for bank bailouts, deficits, and joblessness although some of those policies and problems originated under President George W. Bush.
The result: an expected victory for Republicans in congressional elections on Tuesday that could lead to majorities in one or both houses of Congress, in what would be a major setback to President Barack Obama and his party.
"The Republicans have just managed the PR campaign better," said Gary Segura, political science professor at Stanford University.
"The Obama political messaging machine, which was so effective during the '08 campaign, has been a disaster since they've been in the White House."
Economic data has not helped the Democratic message. The Commerce Department said on Friday gross domestic product expanded at a 2.0 percent annual rate in the third quarter -- growth the White House acknowledges is too slow but still sees as vindication of its policies to avert a depression.
Republicans have honed in on persistently high unemployment, now at 9.6 percent, and have seen that message resonate.
While Democrats stress the crisis that caused the recession erupted under Bush's watch, Republicans have effectively kept the spotlight on the current White House occupant.
"Republicans have been much more successful at shaping the economic narrative. The party has taken what was the 'Bush Economy' and refocused attention almost entirely on Obama's policies," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
"Rather than the cause of the crisis, Republicans have people talking about the solutions to the crisis, what has worked and what hasn't worked. They have done so without offering many specific proposals of their own, which insulates them from attack."
The White House is peeved by that insulation.
"Their economic message has been 'no.' And that also coordinates with their political agenda in the Senate and in the House (of Representatives)," said Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, repeating a constant criticism of the opposition party.
"Look, eight million jobs lost as a result of bad economic decisions -- that's a hole that will take a long time to fill. And we've filled in part of that hole."
Analysts say, after two years in office, Obama owns that hole and everything that came with it, like it or not.
"The bailouts, which were economically necessary to keep the banking system from collapsing, widely benefited Republican constituencies, but ... the Democrats have to own them and the Republicans can just rail against them," said Stanford's Segura. "It's an Alice in Wonderland world where up is down and left is right."
The Republicans are likely to win control of the House in Tuesday's vote and pick up seats in the Senate.
Republicans say Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House are simply reaping the results of unpopular programs enacted after Obama took office.
"They have been getting credit for passing their economic policies -- that's the problem," Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, said in an email.
"People don't like all the spending and debt, they don't believe the stimulus was effective, they've seen their healthcare costs go up -- and they know who gets the credit for all of those things."
Voters will have a chance on Tuesday to assign credit or blame. Mark Hansen, political science professor at the University of Chicago, said even superb messaging from Democrats would not help their party now.
"What people care about is the economy still stinks and the people in charge are Democrats," he said.
"It's sort of a natural response to say, 'let's throw the rascals out and see if the next rascals do better.'"
Reporting by Jeff Mason; editing by Christopher Wilson