Thanks, but no thanks.

That's the message some Democratic lawmakers are sending to Senate Republican hawks as they hit the road to warn constituents about the so-called "fiscal cliff" -- more than $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts due to go into effect in early January.

Republican senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire on Monday kicked off a "Preserving America's Strength" tour, a two-day swing with town hall meetings in four battleground states that they said would be most affected by the automatic cuts, known as sequestration.

The GOP senators had invited their Democratic colleagues to appear alongside them in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire. But as of Monday evening, all five of the Democratic senators in the anti-sequestration roadshow's path had declined. Most cited commitments on Capitol Hill while the Senate is still in session.

Retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) was more pointed.

"Senators Ayotte, Graham and McCain could be making better use of their time by working across party lines to avert arbitrary cuts to defense programs instead of appearing at staged events in three or four swing states for obvious political reasons," Webb, the subcommittee chairman on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "Once these politically motivated, staged events run their course, I am looking forward to beginning a bipartisan effort to achieve a responsible solution to our pressing fiscal challenges.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) -- who commended the Senate defense hawks' efforts in a two-page letter last week -- was absent as Ayotte, Graham and McCain started their day in Tampa on Monday morning.

Nelson's letter promises "bipartisan cooperation" as Congress seeks a legislative solution to the fiscal cliff and puts him on the record as sympathetic to those publicizing the sequester fight amid a reelection campaign animated by Florida's thousands of military employees and retirees.

Last week, Ayotte insisted that she, Graham and McCain are not out to highlight only a Republican sacred cow -- defense spending -- with their four-state tour.

"What we hope to accomplish is to bring people to the table to say, 'This has to be done now,'" Ayotte told The Huffington Post. "This shouldn't be punted to a lame-duck session, and it should be done now because that would be the right thing to do."

Questions about the trip's political motivations first arose last week after McCain spokesman Brian Rogers told The Hill that some members of his Senate staff would appear at the town hall meetings. Because the town hall meetings are happening outside of senators' home states, they must use campaign resources to pay for travel costs. That long-standing rule led Rogers to withdraw his statement and yank all Senate aides from the four-state swing.

As Ayotte, Graham and McCain readied for their stop in Norfolk, Va., on Monday evening, more than 100 employees of local defense contractors assembled as part of the Northern Virginia Stop Sequestration Rally.

In a brief speech, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell avoided pointing the political finger. Instead, he reminded more than 100 employees of local defense contractors that they are facing "unprecedented uncertainty" about whether the fiscal cliff can be averted -- and their jobs can be saved.

McDonnell's address received a polite reception from "STOP SEQUESTRATION NOW" sign-wavers gathered in a mid-size ballroom at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in suburban Washington.

More than 200,000 positions are at risk in Virginia if sequestration goes into effect, according to a slideshow that flashed on two projector screens flanking the rally stage. In front of one of them: a countdown clock ticking off each second until Jan. 1, 2013.

Aerospace sector employee Uve Hodgins called sequestration an "economic issue" that transcends the sometimes rigid partisanship of Washington.

"We're trying to keep it neutral, apolitical and friendly," Hodgins said. "People who would be affected by sequestration are from both parties."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred incorrectly to Webb as the "former" subcommittee chairman. He is the current chairman.

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  • Lee Atwater: Smear Pioneer

    Negative campaigning has become more effective since 1828, though at times no less brutal. Many attribute this growing efficiency to the legacy of Republican strategist Lee Atwater. The former RNC chairman may have been best known as a driving force behind political ads such as the iconic <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Io9KMSSEZ0Y" target="_hplink">Willie Horton commercial</a> against Michael Dukakis in 1988, but his past involvement in smear campaigns is much deeper. Slate <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2008/09/mr_wedge_issue.html" target="_hplink">reports</a> on Atwater's earlier career: <blockquote>In 1973, the 22-year-old protégé of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond began his consulting career by publicizing the fact that Tom Turnipseed, a candidate for the state Senate, had undergone shock therapy as a young man: "They hooked him up to jumper cables" became the catchphrase that sunk Turnipseed's candidacy. Five years later, Atwater helped to defeat Max Heller, a Holocaust survivor running for U.S. Congress, by secretly enlisting a third candidate to enter the race and stir up anti-Semitic sentiment. Atwater finagled his way into a minor post in the Reagan administration, but it was as the director of George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign (and mastermind of the Willie Horton TV ads) that he found his true Machiavellian voice.</blockquote>

  • The Wrong Jim Brady

    The potential perils of attack politics were on full display in 1996 when then-GOP Senate candidate Al Salvi attempted to knock down a high-profile endorsement given to his opponent, then-Rep. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), by former Ronald Reagan Press Secretary Jim Brady. Brady "used to sell" machine guns, Salvi alleged, a strong claim considering Brady's position as strong advocate for gun control and victim of a gunshot wound to the head during a failed assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. Salvi was wrong. "Turns out that was a different Jim Brady," a blushing Salvi was later <a href="http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1996-11-02/news/9611020079_1_o-malley-event-gun-control-assault-weapons" target="_hplink">forced to admit</a>. "I apologize." Salvi ended up losing to Durbin.

  • Attacking A Triple-Amputee For Lack Of Courage

    In 2002, Saxby Chambliss, then a Georgia GOP congressman mounting a bid for U.S. Senate, released a controversial ad <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58371-2004Sep28.html" target="_hplink">falsely accusing</a> then-Sen. Max Cleland (D), a triple-amputee Vietnam War veteran, of voting against the nation's national security interest. It placed Cleland next to images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and suggested that the senator lacked "courage." Chambliss, who didn't serve in Vietnam because of a bad knee, drew widespread condemnation from Republican military veterans in the Senate such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. In a 2008 interview, Chambliss, who had eventually gone on to defeat Cleland six years earlier, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2008/11/13/32286/chambliss-cleland-truthful/" target="_hplink">stood by his ad</a> as "truthful in every way."

  • Jean Schmidt Blasts 'Cowards'

    Long before Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) uttered <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/29/jean-schmidt-reacts-health-care-ruling_n_1638335.html" target="_hplink">shrieks of joy</a> because of false reports that the Supreme Court had ruled against Obamacare, she outraged colleagues on the House floor by suggesting that Vietnam veteran Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), was a "coward." In 2005, Schmidt addressed her colleagues in a House speech, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2005/11/18/2603/schmidt-shame/" target="_hplink">relaying a message</a> from a Marine who she said had urged her to support an extension of the Iraq War. "He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course," she said. "He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do. Danny and the rest of America and the world want the assurance from this body -- that we will see this through." She later returned to the House floor to have her remarks stricken from the record and to apologize to Murtha.

  • RNC's Harold Ford Hit

    In 2006, the Republican National Committee set off bickering within and between political parties when it decided to air an ad in a Senate race between then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and GOP candidate Bob Corker. The ad was chock-full of stereotypes and thinly-veiled racist undertones -- Ford is black. It drew widespread condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans, including Corker himself. Amid the flareup, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15403071/ns/politics/t/tennessee-ad-ignites-internal-gop-squabbling/" target="_hplink">said he found nothing wrong</a> with the ad, but attempted to blame the content on a third party group. Corker eventually won the election.

  • Palin's 'Palling Around With Terrorists'

    In the heat of the 2008 presidential election, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin lofted a now-infamous charge, drawing immediate criticism from opponents who saw it as an attempt to brand then-candidate Barack Obama as un-American. Some even alleged that it was a racially charged character attack seeking to subtly link the supposed terrorist ties to prevalent right-wing conspiracy theories about Obama's so-called Muslim roots. The Associated Press <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/05/ap-palins-ayers-attack-ra_n_132008.html" target="_hplink">reports</a> on her comments: <blockquote>"Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," Palin told a group of donors in Englewood, Colo. A deliberate attempt to smear Obama, McCain's ticket-mate echoed the line at three separate events Saturday. "This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America," she said. "We see America as a force of good in this world. We see an America of exceptionalism."</blockquote>

  • 'There Is No God'

    In 2008, a floundering Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) released an ad attempting to accuse her opponent, Democrat Kay Hagan, of having mysterious ties to a group called Godless Americans. The entire ad struck many observers as a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/29/dole-ad-fabricates-audio_n_138874.html" target="_hplink">desperate attempt</a> to regain momentum, but the brunt of the controversy came in the last few seconds, when a faceless voice rings out, yelling "there is no God." Many saw it as an attempt to paint the quote as Hagan's. It wasn't. In fact, Hagan was a Sunday School teacher who served as an elder at her Presbyterian church.

  • Vintage Michele Bachmann

    Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) had a somewhat rapid ascent to her current status as darling of conservatives and the Tea Party faithful. It was accelerated in part by appearances such as this one in 2008, during which she called into question the "pro-America" views of the Obamas and various members of Congress. HuffPost's Sam Stein <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/17/gop-rep-channels-mccarthy_n_135735.html" target="_hplink">reported</a> at the time: <blockquote>In a television appearance that outraged Democrats are already describing as Joseph McCarthy politics, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed on Friday that Barack Obama and his wife Michelle held anti-American views and couldn't be trusted in the White House. She even called for the major newspapers of the country to investigate other members of Congress to "find out if they are pro-America or anti-America." Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball, Bachmann went well off the reservation when it comes to leveling political charges against the Democratic nominee. "If we look at the collection of friends that Barack Obama has had in his life," she said, "it calls into question what Barack Obama's true beliefs and values and thoughts are. His attitudes, values, and beliefs with Jeremiah Wright on his view of the United States...is negative; Bill Ayers, his negative view of the United States. We have seen one friend after another call into question his judgment -- but also, what it is that Barack Obama really believes?"</blockquote>

  • 'You Lie'

    Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) embodied a newly emerging brand of hyper-partisanship in 2009 when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/09/gop-rep-wilson-yells-out_n_281480.html" target="_hplink">interrupted</a> President Barack Obama's major speech on his health care reform package. "You lie!" Wilson yelled over Obama, who was explaining that the legislation would not mandate coverage for undocumented immigrants. Wilson's outburst drew disapproval from both sides of the aisle.

  • 'Baby Killer'

    During the heat of the health care debate in 2010, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) added to the growing partisan discord when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/22/randy-neugebauer-revealed_n_508525.html" target="_hplink">shouted "baby killer"</a> at Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) while he was delivering a speech on the House floor. Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat, had been under heavy fire from Republicans after crafting a deal with the White House in return for his and other Democrats' "yes" vote on the health care reform bill. The White House held up their end of the bargain with an executive order affirming that no taxpayer money would go to fund abortions.

  • 'No Mosque'

    North Carolina GOP congressional candidate Renne Ellmers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/23/renee-ellmers-gop-congres_n_735585.html" target="_hplink">raised some eyebrows</a> and gave her race national attention when she released an attack ad attempting to link her Democratic challenger to the controversial Park51 Islamic center. The ad was criticized for its apparent interchangeable use of the words "terrorists" and "Muslims," as well as the fact that Ellmers' opponent, incumbent Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) hadn't even weighed in on the issue yet. Ellmers didn't appear to do herself any favors in her <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/27/renee-ellmers-north-carol_n_740199.html" target="_hplink">attempts to explain the ad</a> during a contentious interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, but she ended up winning in November after a late surge of momentum.

  • Alan Grayson's 'Taliban Dan'

    Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) managed to give his opponent, Republican Dan Webster, a boost after he released an attack ad seeking to label Webster as "Taliban Dan." The spot featured selectively edited quotes from a 2009 Christian seminar that <a href="http://www.politifact.com/florida/article/2010/sep/28/fact-checking-alan-graysons-taliban-dan-webster-ad/" target="_hplink">misrepresented Webster's words</a> to suggest that he believed wives should submit to their husbands. Grayson had repeatedly enraged his Republican opponents with biting and at times over-the-top allegations. Comments such as his notorious charge that their health care plan was for Americans to "die quickly" had made him a top target for the GOP. He would lose his election to Webster.

  • Scott Brown Pictures Stripped Elizabeth Warren

    Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) did himself no favors in the fall of 2011, when he returned a volley concerning his past nude modeling for <em>Cosmopolitan</em> magazine, a career choice that his Democratic opponent Elizabeth Warren had earlier jabbed at. HuffPost's Ryan Grim <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/06/scott-brown-elizabeth-warren-senate_n_998048.html" target="_hplink">reported</a>: <blockquote>"Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren's comment about how she didn't take her clothes off?" the host asked Brown Wednesday. "Thank God!" Brown said, laughing. The host got a kick out it, too. "That's what I said! I said, 'Look, can you blame a good-looking guy for wanting to, you know..."</blockquote> His opponents quickly <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/06/news/la-pn-scott-brown-thank-god-20111006" target="_hplink">hit back</a>, claiming that the comments were sexist and "the kind of thing you would expect to hear in a frat house, not a race for U.S. Senate."

  • 'Debbie Spend It Now'

    Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) couldn't have picked a bigger stage to launch a now-notoriously insensitive ad against his Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow. In the middle of the Super Bowl, Hoekstra's campaign <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/pete-hoekstra-ad-china_n_1256791.html" target="_hplink">rolled out the spot</a>, which featured an Asian-American actress using stereotypically broken English to accuse Stabenow -- or "Spend-It-Now" -- of supporting U.S. government spending habits that benefitted the Chinese economy. The backlash was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/pete-hoekstra-ad-china-michigan_n_1256912.html" target="_hplink">bipartisan</a> and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/22/pete-hoekstra-polls-china-ad_n_1294221.html" target="_hplink">widespread</a>.

  • Allen West

    Though only a freshman, Tea Party favorite Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) has already staked his political fame on inflammatory and controversial statements. His most well-known claim is now perhaps his contention that as many as 80 House Democrats are members of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/11/allen-west-democrats-communist-party_n_1417279.html" target="_hplink">Communist Party</a>. His spokesperson later claimed that he was referring to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Of course, that's just one of a catalogue of Allen West-isms. Click through the slideshow <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/19/allen-west-communists_n_1437517.html" target="_hplink">here</a> for a larger sampling.

  • 'True Hero' Battle

    Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) began digging himself a hole in July when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/03/joe-walsh-tammy-duckworth_n_1646793.html" target="_hplink">suggested</a> that his Democratic opponent, triple-amputee Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, was not a "true hero" because she spoke too frequently about her military service. In the followup, Walsh kept digging deeper on the Duckworth line, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/joe-walsh-tammy-duckworth_n_1650805.html" target="_hplink">claiming</a> that "all she does" is "talk about her service," instead of focusing on other issues. He <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/joe-walsh-ashleigh-banfield_n_1652236.html" target="_hplink">took a similar angle</a> in a subsequent interview, in which he managed to utter his interviewer's name more than 90 times.