(10-23) 04:00 PDT Orlando --
Seeking any slight advantage in their effort to avoid losing control of Congress, Democrats are working behind the scenes in a number of tight races to bolster longshot third-party candidates who have platforms at odds with the Democratic agenda but hold the promise of siphoning Republican votes.
The efforts are taking place with varying degrees of stealth. And in many cases, they seem to hold as much risk as potential reward for Democrats, prompting accusations of hypocrisy and dirty tricks from Republicans and the third-party movements that are on the receiving end of the unlikely, and sometimes unwelcome, support.
In Southern California, Republicans have received recorded phone calls from a self-proclaimed but unidentified "registered Republican" who says she is voting for the American Independent Party's candidate for a House seat, Bill Lussenheide, not for the incumbent Republican, Mary Bono Mack. The caller says she is voting that way because "it's time we show Washington what a true conservative looks like."
The recording was openly paid for by the Democratic candidate for the seat, Mayor Steve Pougnet of Palm Springs.
In Pennsylvania, the Democratic candidate for a suburban Philadelphia House seat, Bryan Lentz, admitted this week that his volunteers helped Jim Schneller - a prominent skeptic of President Obama's citizenship - collect petitions to run against Lentz and his Republican opponent, Pat Meehan.
In Nevada, conservative radio listeners have heard an advertisement promoting the Senate campaign of a "Tea Party of Nevada" candidate, Scott Ashjian. The ads also criticize Sharron Angle, the Republican nominee and favored candidate of the actual Tea Party movement in the race for the seat of Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader.
The ad was sponsored by a group backed by unions and casino and mining companies supporting Reid.
Nevada is one of several states, including Florida, where "Tea Party" political committees have appeared on ballot lines without the knowledge or support of leading Tea Party activists. And in most of those cases, local bloggers, reporters and lawyers have traced connections back to local Democrats, drawing a number of lawsuits, complaints and, in a couple of cases, admissions of involvement.
"It is one of the dirtiest moves," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield (Kern County), a vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "In congressional races, it could steer the tide for the majority."
In response to questions about whether the efforts were being coordinated on a national level, the Democratic National Committee said in a statement, "Republicans have no one to blame but their own ideological intolerance for the bloody civil war on their side."
Stealth support for third-party candidates who have the potential to cut into the other side's votes is a time-tested political tradition for both parties. But this year's efforts are striking for the potency of the grassroots movement that Democrats are trying to use to their advantage - that is, the Tea Party - and for the sometimes brazen nature of the attempts.
In Florida, local Republicans and grassroots Tea Party activists continue to press the case that "Tea Party" candidates on the ballot are stalking horses for Democrats - an assertion that Democrats deny.
Tea Party activists in the state said they were flabbergasted to learn of the existence of a "Tea Party" ballot line.
"I didn't know who the heck these people were," said Everett Wilkinson, a grassroots activist.