By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats and Republicans have fired opening shots in a populist battle over corporate America's power, with the political impact as uncertain as trading on Wall Street.
In a speech on Friday, House of Representatives Republican Leader Eric Cantor assailed anti-Wall Street protesters as "growing mobs" that are trying to divide the country.
The Democratic Obama administration countered that the New York demonstrations that began three weeks ago and include nurses, students and union workers give voice to democracy and people demanding financial fairness.
If the Occupy Wall Street movement evolves into a potent force, it could influence the November 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Republicans are fashioning the elections as a chance to rescue the economy from a bloated government while Democrats are calling for Washington to protect Middle America from financial abuses that contributed to the 2008 economic crash.
Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia who tracks presidential and congressional races, said it is too early to judge the impact the protests will have.
"Democrats hope this becomes the equivalent of the Tea Party," he said. "But that would require a lot more than carrying signs in the street. It'd require raising money, knocking on doors, organizing, going to the polls and voting."
Cantor lashed out at the anti-Wall Street movement in a speech to social conservatives gathered in Washington.
"I for one am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country," Cantor said.
"Believe it or not, some in this town have actually condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans," Cantor said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney accused Cantor of hypocrisy, saying he could not recall the House Republican leader using the word "mobs" to describe Tea Party rallies, referring to the conservative movement that helped Republicans increase their clout in Congress in the 2010 elections.
"I don't understand why ... one man's mob is another man's democracy," Carney said. "Both are expressions that are totally consistent with the American democratic tradition."
The loosely formed Occupy Wall Street group is tapping into public anger over a high U.S. unemployment rate triggered largely by a reckless financial industry that was bailed out by the U.S. government.
HOW SHOULD OBAMA HANDLE IT?
Ken Pearson, a retired mechanical engineer from Wisconsin, traveled to Washington to demonstrate and complained about Democrats and Republicans -- just as many anti-Washington Tea Party protesters did in 2010.
"What we really need to do is put pressure on both parties and try to force them to see our view," Pearson said.
Paul Sracic, head of the political science department at Youngstown State University, said President Barack Obama should be wary.
"He is already seen as a radical by some Americans. Associating himself with these protest movements may reinforce this idea," Sracic said, especially if some at the rallies "start spouting out things that sound anti-American."
Protests have been largely peaceful, although last Saturday in New York, more than 700 people were arrested when demonstrators blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Obama appeared to choose his words carefully when asked about the movement on Thursday.
"I think people are frustrated and ... the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works," Obama said at a White House news conference.
He used a reporter's question about the Wall Street protesters as a platform for touting his administration's efforts to place new controls on the banking industry -- likely a recurring theme in the run-up to elections.
The president noted that while he and fellow Democrats in Congress enacted legislation to crack down on Wall Street, Republicans had pushed to roll it back.
Paul Light, a political science professor at New York University, said the White House "may be making a bet that this thing will get real traction among ... young people, who have largely checked out of politics."
But Light said, "At this point, the movement is of undetermined size and strength."
(Additional reporting by Mari Saito and Laura MacInnis; Editing by Richard Cowan, Howard Goller and Bill Trott)