Democrats desperate for a political game-changer in the final days of the campaign are raising alarms about Republican ideas for reforming the nation's tax code, arguing that their plans will roil middle-class families.
Most Republicans, wary of delving into treacherous complexities of the issue _ especially so close to Election Day, are trying to change the subject.
Trailing in dozens of races, Democrats have launched an advertising campaign over GOP proposals for tax reform in several competitive House and Senate races. The ads accuse GOP candidates of supporting a steep national sales tax, but ignore the fact that proponents would eliminate many of the taxes that Americans pay now, such as levies on income and payroll.
In Arkansas, struggling Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln is attacking her opponent's support for a national sales tax that even its backers acknowledge has little chance of becoming law.
"John Boozman's excited about putting a 23 percent national sales tax on everything you buy," the ad says, showing images of items ranging from a teddy bear to a lawnmower. "Calling it a 'fair tax' is like putting a dress on a pig."
Boozman, a five-term congressman from northwest Arkansas, has co-sponsored legislation that would replace the federal income tax with a national sales tax. During a debate with Lincoln in August, Boozman said he was excited about the idea of eliminating the Internal Revenue Service but stopped short of wholeheartedly endorsing the sales tax idea.
"I think it's something that needs to be looked at," Boozman said. "I would love to get rid of the IRS."
That was enough to open a line of attack by Democrats looking to hold back emboldened Republicans poised to ride voter dissatisfaction into majorities in the House and possibly the Senate.
The tax code issue is popping up in places such as Arizona, where Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is using it against her tea party-backed Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, and on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil is saying the same thing about his GOP rival, Andy Harris.
In Colorado, incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet has been airing ads describing what a trip to the store might be like if Republican Ken Buck votes in a national sales tax.
"A bag of groceries? $11 more," the Bennet ad says. "A tank of gas? $10 more. The medicine you need? $105 more."
That ad is quickly followed by a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee commercial saying Republican House candidate Scott Tipton would also back the sales tax plan.
In their responses to the attacks, most Republicans are attempting to explain their positions or distinguish between the "fair tax," the "flat tax" or the wholesale abolition of the IRS. These notions have thrived in campaign white papers and conservative journals for years _ former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee used his plan for a national sales tax as the rallying point for his presidential bid in 2008 _ but none has gotten close to enactment.
The so-called fair tax that Huckabee championed would eliminate federal income and investment taxes and replace them with a 23 percent federal sales tax. The poor would pay no net sales tax up to the poverty level, and every household would receive a rebate equal to sales taxes paid on essential goods and services.
National Democrats are using the attack in eight states _ Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Ohio, Colorado, Illinois and Maryland _ hit especially hard by an economic recession that has left 15 million Americans without work.
In Ohio, an unemployment rate that tops the nation's has darkened the political landscape and the battered economy threatens to flush as many as six Democrats from office. The tax code attack is a constant salvo against GOP candidates.
In northeastern Ohio, a DCCC ad claims Republican Jim Renacci is trying to raise taxes "with a new 23 percent national sales tax on almost everything you buy _ food, gas, even medicine." Renacci is challenging first-term Rep. John Boccieri, a Democrat who started his job as a GOP target.
In central Ohio, a separate ad by first-term Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy's campaign makes an almost identical claim about Republican opponent Steve Stivers.
Republican strategists say the attack is one of the Democrats' most effective, though not as effective as claims that GOP candidates want to ship jobs overseas and want to "privatize" Social Security through private accounts.
Tea party-fueled Senate hopeful Rand Paul of Kentucky is the rare candidate who has run toward the plan.
"The federal tax code is a disaster no one would come up with if we were starting from scratch," Paul said in a written response to an anti-tax group. "I support making taxes flatter and simpler. I would vote for the 'fair tax' to get rid of the 16th Amendment, the IRS and a lot of the control the federal government exerts over us."
Other candidates are distancing themselves from ideas for changing the tax code, and Paul tempered his support on Thursday, saying any change is contingent on not raising taxes.
Tim Griffin, a former Bush White House staffer seeking a Republican seat in central Arkansas, said during the spring primary that he liked the idea of a national sales tax. Now, Griffin says that he is more interested in a flat income tax.
"When I looked at it and did my homework on this issue, I concluded that a flat tax is better than a consumption tax," Griffin said last month.
Democrat Chad Causey, who is hoping to keep a long-Democratic eastern Arkansas district in his party's control, targeted Republican Rick Crawford for calling the tax "interesting" and an idea that deserved further discussion.
"You know what?" Crawford says in response. "Unicorns are an interesting idea, too, but they're also fictional _ just like Causey's claims that I want to raise taxes 23 percent."
Elliott reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ann Sanner in Columbus, Ohio, and Julie Davis in Washington contributed to this report.