Thursday, November 02, 2006

Why Some Top Republicans Think They May Still Have the Last Laugh

The Allen Report
Why Some Top Republicans Think They May Still Have the Last Laugh
Mike Allen

The President, The Vice President and Karl Rove are all over the airwaves predicting that, against the apparent odds, the GOP will keep both houses of Congress next Tuesday. White House officials say this is not just cheerleading -- that they have five good reasons to think so. An exclusive look at what they think is the way to win in '06.

President George W. Bush points toward the fireworks as they begin exploding against the dusk Houston skyline, lingers to watch for a few minutes with a candidate for the Senate and one for the House, then gives a big wave to a euphoric crowd packed into the hangar behind him, salutes smartly, steps onto his Marine One helicopter and heads out into the night. Earlier, another crowd of boisterous Republicans had been urged to give "a warm Georgia welcome" to a President who soon had them shouting "U-S-A," "Amen!," "You're the man, George," and even, "Four more years!"

With less than a week until midterm congressional elections that will help determine the course of the final quarter of his presidency, the President is summoning the formidable campaign skills that helped him triumph in the primaries and general election of 2000, and win electoral and popular victories in 2004. It's all back: The darkened halls that explode in spotlights as the President takes the stage. His frenzied hand-over-hand greeting of a few lucky audience members as he races to the podium. And the contagious country music, from Brooks and Dunn "dreaming in read white and blue" to Texan Pat Green proclaiming: "You came upon me, wave on wave. You're the reason I'm still here, yeah." The crowd in Sugar Land, formerly represented by Rep. Tom DeLay, was treated to one of the greatest shows on earth: the President's chopper taxiing up to the hangar door, an aide racing his speech to the podium with the engine still running, then the President entering to the theme from Harrison Ford's "Air Force One."

With the crowd waving pom-poms, Old Glory and little Lone Star flags, Bush said hoarsely that he's "looking forward to sprinting to the finish line," and declared that the Democrats were doing some premature celebrating. "In Washington, some of the folks over there are already picking out their new offices," he crowed, in what has become a standard bit on the stump. "That's not the first time it's happened since I've been in Washington. You might remember, in 2004, some of them were measuring the drapes in the West Wing. They had their office suites all picked out. Except their problem was, the movers weren't needed. And the same thing is going to happen this year."

In case you missed it, the Gallup Poll reported in an Oct. 24 analysis: "A review of Gallup polling finds Bush's current 37% approval rating lower than any other president since 1974 at this point in a midterm election campaign." And political guru Stuart Rothenberg is still forecasting that Republicans will lose 18 to 28 House seats, more than the 15 that Democrats need to take control. But the President and his high command have been predicting in television interviews and newspaper editorial-board meetings that Republicans will hold both the House and Senate, a scenario that is foreseen by few others. Top Republican officials have been working in the past few days to convince reporters that there are solid reasons for this optimism, and that it's not just happy talk to try to convince the party's voters not to give up and stay home.

A dozen or so rallies like the Sugar Land extravaganza will be held in the campaign's homestretch, and the President's ability to excite core Republicans is one of the potential keys to victories in close races where Bush is dropping in, including his appearance Monday in Statesboro, Ga., where he was campaigning for Max Burns, a former congressman who lost the last election to Rep. John Barrow (D) and is now in a rematch. As the President's motorcade wended through Georgia Southern University, a bed sheet hung from a brick fraternity house proclaimed that Sigma Chi "Supports Bush." In Texas, he was appearing with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is far ahead of her Democratic opponent, and Shelley Sekula Gibbs, a dermatologist with a complicated name who's trying to convince voters in DeLay's former district that there's nothing complicated about writing in her name on voting machines.

A new Washington must-read by political journalists Mark Halperin and John F. Harris maps "The Way to Win" for presidential candidates in 2008, but White House officials say they have their own way to win in '06. Besides Bush's residual popularity in some crucial states and districts, Republican officials say the other reasons they're optimistic are:

1) No Republican is being taken by surprise, unlike many Democrats in 1994. Shortly after Bush's reelection, White House and Republican National Committee officials began working to convince House members that the formidable reelection record for incumbents (since 1996, 97.5 percent) was not something they could take for granted. "What we attempted to do last year," said one of these officials, "was to go out of our way to say to people: 'You face a potential of a race. In order to win as an incumbent, you better have a plan,' " including an intensive focus on voter registration, a message plan that would unfold in phases, and a ground organization that was operating in a measurable, quantifiable way. One official involved in the process said Republican officials deliberately "scared" lawmakers, telling them: "You face a very tough road. You better be ready."

2) Absentee ballot requests and returns, closely tracked by the party, are meeting or exceeding past levels for Republicans in key states and districts. Republican officials say White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and party operatives are scrutinizing this data with the same intensity that they followed metrics like voter registration earlier in the cycle. For at least 68 races, they have been getting reports once a week on the number of voters registered, phone calls completed and doors knocked on. Now, they're getting a second report on the number of absentee ballots requested, absentee ballots returned and early votes cast. "We can look at that data flow and make an assumption about what's going on and plotting it out," a Republican official said.

3) When the national parties, national campaign committees, state "victory" committee accounts and competitive campaigns are added up, Republicans maintained a substantial financial advantage over Democrats at the last filing period. "We didn't look on it as one pot," said one official involved in the process. "We looked upon it as four pots, with synergy available through all four."

4) Republicans say the district-by-district playing field favors them in several structural ways not reflected in national polls. Here is their thinking, starting with statistics from the President's 2004 race against John F. Kerry: "There are 41 districts held by a Democrat that Bush carried, and 14 seats held by Republican that Kerry carried, so we're fighting on better turf. You see it in the open seats, where Bush carried 18 of the Republican open seats and Kerry carried two. So we're fighting on better turf."

5) The get-out-the-vote machine designed by Rove and now-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman in 2001 was dubbed the "72-hour" program, but officials say that's quite a misnomer and that it's really a 17-week or even two-year program. "In Ohio, we are making more phone calls this year than we made two years ago," said an official involved in the process. "Now, that's not the case necessarily in Virginia, which was not a battleground state. You have to build that. In other places, we built that and built it early."

On the road Monday, Rove playfully answered the receptionist's phone at a hotel where the President was conducting an interview with Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity. "Historic Statesboro Inn," Rove said authoritatively, then went to track down the manager himself, returning several times to update the caller on the progress of his quest. On Air Force One on the way home, "the architect" made a rare appearance in the press cabin, handing out chocolate-covered pecans to the reporters. He waved the lid of the tin theatrically and said, "Sweets for my sweets!" In only a few days, it'll be clear whether he has outsmarted the pundits and Democrats, one last time.