Monday, May 08, 2006

Rove Is Using Threat of Loss to Stir G.O.P.

The New York Times
Rove Is Using Threat of Loss to Stir G.O.P.

WASHINGTON, May 5 — To anyone who doubts the stakes for the White House in this year's midterm Congressional elections, consider that Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the Democrat who would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee if his party recaptured the House, has called for an inquiry into the possible impeachment of President Bush over the war in Iraq.

Or listen to Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who would run the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Democrats took the Senate. Mr. Leahy vowed in a recent interview to subpoena top administration officials, if he got the chance, to answer more questions about their secret eavesdropping program and what he considers faulty prewar intelligence.

The prospect of the administration spending its last two years being grilled by angry Democrats under the heat of partisan spotlights has added urgency to the efforts by Karl Rove and Mr. Bush's political team to hang on to the Republican majorities in Congress.

Newly shorn of the daily policymaking duties he took on after the 2004 campaign and now refocused on his role as Mr. Bush's chief strategist, Mr. Rove is facing an increasingly difficult climate for Republicans, and an increasingly assertive Democratic Party.

The ambitious second-term agenda he helped develop has faltered even with a Republican Congress. His once-grand plans for creating a broadened and permanent Republican majority have given way to a goal of clinging to control of the House and Senate.

The prospect of Democrats capturing either, however, may be one of the best weapons Mr. Rove has as he turns to what he has traditionally done best: motivating his party's conservative base to turn out on Election Day.

Heading into the election, many conservatives are disheartened by the war in Iraq, upset at what they see as a White House tolerance for bigger government and escalating federal spending, and divided over issues like immigration. The abrupt resignation on Friday of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Porter J. Goss, promised to feed the impression of an administration that is off balance.

But White House and Republican officials, trying to turn vulnerability to advantage, say conservatives could be united and re-energized by the possibility that Democrats could put Mr. Bush and his policies on political trial by winning control of even one chamber of Congress.

Senate Republicans sent out a fund-raising letter this week seeking to use that possibility to fire up the base, warning that a Democratic majority would put fighting terrorism "on the back burner" and that "our worst fears" could be realized.

The appeal is just one indication of how hard the White House and its Republican allies are likely to fight from now through Nov. 7 and of the challenge Mr. Rove faces in what could be the last campaign he orchestrates with the party.

At stake is not just what remains of Mr. Bush's hopes of making a permanent imprint on policy, but also whether Democrats will have a platform to define his presidency for history.

With so much on the line, Mr. Rove has taken to traveling the country to form strategies with individual candidates and local parties while brainstorming with the president's political and policy teams on broad items the White House can pursue to help Republicans everywhere. He is focusing on only the major planks of Mr. Bush's agenda and not the minutiae of policy that had consumed hours of his day.

In regular West Wing breakfast sessions catered by the White House mess, Mr. Rove and the White House political director, Sara Taylor, have already been reaching out to nervous and vulnerable Republicans, three at a time, laying out an emerging three-prong attack on Democrats over national security, taxes and health care.

In meetings at the White House, aboard Air Force One and in candidates' home states, Mr. Rove is trying to rally Republicans to stand by the president and his agenda.

He has focused in particular on uniting them behind the administration's proposals to overhaul immigration, which include guest worker provisions that conservatives despise; the Iraq war, which has driven Mr. Bush's poll numbers sharply downward; and the Medicare prescription drug program, which the administration says will cost $872 billion from 2006 to 2014 and which Mr. Bush backed enthusiastically despite complaints from conservatives that it was a vast expansion of the social welfare state.

Democrats need a net gain of six seats to win control of the Senate, and 15 for the House. With the overall outcome potentially coming down to one or two races, nearly every district and state seems to be getting some attention from Mr. Rove. He enlisted the president, and called on his own, to persuade Representative Elton Gallegly of California, a 10-term veteran, to reconsider a decision to drop his planned re-election campaign because of health worries.

Mr. Gallegly's decision threatened to jeopardize a seat the White House could otherwise count as safe. Mr. Gallegly quoted Mr. Rove as saying, "You know how important this election is going to be to be to all of us."

Mr. Gallegly acquiesced and said his health fear had ultimately proved unfounded anyway.

Mr. Rove's playbook is drawn straight from the one that worked for him in 2004: first, get conservatives fired up enough to vote, a particularly important goal in a midterm election, in which turnout is usually quite low. Second, make sure the election is not just about Mr. Bush's performance, but also about the choice between a Republican Party defined on its own terms and a Democratic Party defined on Mr. Rove's.

"We need to be really aggressive in explaining the sharp differences that exist between our candidates and their candidates on issues like taxes," Mr. Rove said in a telephone interview on Thursday as he headed to address a Republican dinner in Lancaster, Pa. "We have to do a better job of pressing advantages that we have on Medicare, prescription drugs."

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said Mr. Rove's task was tough but overdue. "Part of the problem is, I don't think there's been that kind of communication or the attempt to build political consensus within the party," Mr. Cornyn said, while voicing confidence in Mr. Rove's ability to pull it off.

Mr. Rove is also working in close contact with Ms. Taylor and the Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman, to put in motion the get-out-the-vote machinery Mr. Mehlman masterminded in 2004. They are refining state "victory programs" to identify potentially friendly voters who can be expected to receive messages about how the Democrats are ill prepared to fight terrorism or will undo tax cuts the president wants to make permanent.

Democrats say that is an old ploy that will not work this year. "The only things they can bring back this year are the old saws," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "They just won't play. We're in a new world."

At this point in the last midterm elections four years ago, Mr. Bush's approval ratings were around 70 percent, making him a huge asset on the campaign trail for his party.

Now the president's approval ratings are half that. The war has cast a shadow over the rest of the administration's agenda, and Democrats say some of the accomplishments Mr. Rove wants to highlight, like the prescription drug benefit, have troubled histories that make them less than ideal centerpieces for a campaign. And Mr. Rove remains embroiled in the federal criminal investigation into the disclosure of a C.I.A. officer's identity.

But Republican and White House officials say that as the kinks subside the prescription drug plan will be a net positive for the party come November, just as Mr. Rove said that the passage of a sweeping overhaul of immigration law would please voters who wanted action from Washington.

Republican and White House officials are also telling fellow Republicans that criticizing the president risks bringing the party down with him. At the same time, party officials have said they do not want the election to be a referendum on Mr. Bush.

Democrats are determined to make it just that. They say they believe that talk of their plans to demand answers from the administration is a rallying cry for their core voters.

"I think when the Congress finally joins the American people, this president is going to have to not just show how stubborn he is by sticking out his jaw," said Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, who would be in line for the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee if Democrats took the House. "He's going to have to answer some questions."

Mr. Rove said he was not worried. "We won't see how that plays out because they're not going to win," he said.