By John Whitesides
ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Vice President Joseph Biden assured Democratic Party leaders on Friday they would retain control of Congress in November elections with the unwitting help of Republicans, who he said had lost touch with Americans.
At a meeting of the Democratic National Committee, Biden said voters would begin to focus on the election in the next few weeks and would not like the rehash of failed Bush administration policies pushed by Republicans.
"They are going to look at what the Republican Party is really offering -- more of the past, but on steroids," Biden said, adding Republicans had been shoved to the right by conservative "Tea Party" candidates.
"The Republican Party is out of step with where the American people are," Biden said. "It's a race between Democrats and the Republican Tea Party."
Democrats spent most of the two-day meeting predicting they would defy grim forecasts for November, when a sour voter mood and struggling economy could lead them to lose control of the House of Representatives and see big losses in the Senate.
All 435 House seats and 37 Senate seats are up for grabs in November, with Republicans needing to gain 39 House seats and 10 Senate seats to reclaim majorities and slam the brakes on President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.
Democrats hope a big voter turnout effort and the rise of conservative Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky will galvanize Democratic support and help them retain their majorities.
The loosely organized Tea Party movement has been driven by conservative activists seeking lower taxes and more limited government.
During the meeting, Biden and other Democrats repeatedly raised the specter of former President George W. Bush and the years of Republican rule, echoing an emerging campaign theme.
Obama has been making it a centerpiece of his campaign stump speeches, and the DNC released a national television ad on Friday hammering home the link with Bush.
"The American people are much smarter than the politicians and the pundits. They know the mess we inherited," Biden said.
REPUBLICANS FIRE BACK
Republicans said Biden was taking a vacation from reality, noting the 9.5 percent U.S. unemployment rate, a skyrocketing national debt and the highest jobless claims in nine months.
"Joe Biden is still desperately trying to convince Democrats that the economy is on the right track," said Republican National Committee spokesman Bill Riggs. "It's clear that Barack Obama and Joe Biden are completely out of touch."
Biden and Democratic leaders took pains to recount the administration's accomplishments in passing an economic stimulus bill, Wall Street reform and a healthcare overhaul.
Democrats said the healthcare bill passed in March would rank with other landmark Democratic initiatives like the Social Security retirement program and the Medicare and Medicaid health programs for the elderly and poor.
"The more people understand this bill, the more they are going to like it," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
But most polls have yet to show notable gains in support for the overhaul since it was passed. A CNN poll released on Friday found 56 percent opposed it and only 40 percent supported it, similar to the results in March.
The DNC plans to pump about $30 million into turnout efforts focused on first-time voters who helped sweep Obama into the White House in 2008, hoping to erase what polls show is a sizable lead for Republicans in enthusiasm for voting.
"It's going to be a battle," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said of the elections. "We're going to win it on the streets like we won it in 2008 on the streets."
Democrats also gave final approval to a shift in the 2012 presidential primary schedule to make it conform with a plan already approved by Republicans.
Under the schedule, four states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- would hold their nominating contests in February 2012. All other states would wait until March or later to hold their presidential primaries.
The plan, worked out by the two parties, is designed to prevent the battles between states to move to the front of the schedule that occurred in 2008.
(Editing by Bill Trott)