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Mary McGrory

Winning on the War

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, November 7, 2002; Page A25

Who can explain it, who can tell you why?

That's a line from "Some Enchanted Evening," which is what the Republicans experienced Tuesday, as they routed the Democrats in every corner of the country.

Why did Fritz Mondale go down in Minnesota? He was supposedly riding the wave of emotion that swept Lake Wobegon country when Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash two weeks ago. The former vice president and senator gamely emerged from retirement and engaged in spirited debate with Norm Coleman, former Democrat and mayor of St. Paul. Mondale spoke clearly of his opposition to President Bush's tax cut and Bush's war with Iraq. He spoke of the perspective given by the nuclear revelations of North Korea. Democrats' hearts leapt. Here was a voice desperately needed in the councils of Washington. Here was gravitas. But yesterday we learned that the pride of Minnesota had lost by two points.

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The Republicans said that public indignation, led by yokel Gov. Jesse Ventura, at Wellstone's "politicized" memorial slowed Mondale's eleventh-hour momentum. Ventura claimed he felt "violated" -- although why a man who wore pink tights and a feather boa in the wrestling ring should suddenly be treated as an arbiter of good taste is a bizarre detail. It would seem that hardy Minnesotans could withstand a little rock music and cheering at a politician's funeral.

What happened to Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia was less merciful. He was the target of a merchant of malice named C. Saxby Chambliss, who was chosen by Bush to oppose him. In his TV ads Chambliss charged Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, with a failure of patriotism -- because he didn't support all provisions of Bush's homeland security bill.

Even Lee Atwater, the famous South Carolina political cutthroat employed by the president's father, might have blanched at having a man who never wore the uniform trashing a war hero. Georgians bought it. They rejected Cleland 53 to 46.

The president's campaign strategy was simplicity itself. Its hallmarks were inclusiveness and boldness. He visited 15 states in the last five days of the campaign and beat the drums for everyone, from gentle, dovish Jim Leach of Iowa to character assassin Chambliss.

The president made himself the issue. He could not have done it without the help of the Democrats, who made it clear that on the two major issues of the day, the economy and the war, they were on his side. He took a big gamble. He went from state to state saying he needed the help of whatever candidate he found alongside him on the homeland security bill, the strategy enunciated by his adviser Karl Rove, who urged Republicans to use the war to their advantage.

Democrats mistakenly thought that an early vote on Capitol Hill would get the war issue "out of the way." The recriminations are already beginning. How will they justify their humiliation? Will they give the heave-ho to Terry McAuliffe, the raucous national chairman who represents the expedient wing of the party and continues to maintain that the returns were not that bad?

It's a spin that won't turn. This was a rout. The argument has begun in private between the expedients and those who want to go back to the liberal constituency that was once considered the core of the party.

Tuesday proves that me-too, content-free politics doesn't work.

The trouble is, says Boston sage and former Kennedy staffer David Burke, that 14 months after 9/11, Americans are still scared stiff.

They don't want Bush distracted as he copes with terrorists. They don't mind his U.N.-baiting or his inconsistent approaches to Iraq and North Korea. They are constantly reminded of multiplying and unseen threats.

That's behind the message the voters sent to the Democrats: Don't mess with the commander in chief.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company