Kenneth B. Mehlman, a top political strategist to President Bush and the campaign manager for his 2004 reelection bid, took over the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee yesterday with a pledge to mobilize economic and social conservatives to craft a "durable Republican majority" in the years ahead.
Mehlman, 38, a confidant of White House senior adviser Karl Rove, said the same rally-the-base strategy that powered Bush to a second term can be used this year to promote Bush's agenda on taxes, judicial nominees, retooling Social Security, and social issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
"Let's put these supporters and activists to work for the agenda they crafted last year," Mehlman said, in a luncheon address following the RNC's formal ratification of his selection by Bush last November to take over as chairman from lobbyist Ed Gillespie.
"We can deepen the GOP by identifying and turning out Americans who vote for president but who often miss off-year elections and agree with our work on behalf of a culture of life, our promoting marriage, and a belief in our Second Amendment heritage" to oppose gun control, Mehlman told delegates at the downtown hotel.
He vowed that traditionally non-Republican voters will be drawn to the GOP by Bush's issues, including young people who support private accounts as part of Social Security, African Americans who support faith-based social programs, and Hispanic businessmen who support restrictions on lawsuits.
As head of Bush's reelection campaign, Mehlman became a familiar face on political talk shows, where he was known for his staccato style and unerring discipline at staying on message. He was the implementer of the Rove-driven strategy that held Bush could win by generating huge turnout among conservatives -- an effort that Mehlman maintained could be executed without alienating independent-minded swing voters.
The strategy was the opposite of the centrist strategy pursued by the previous president to seek and win reelection, Democrat Bill Clinton, who played down partisan and ideological issues and wooed independents. Yesterday, Mehlman hailed Bush's 51 percent popular victory -- which came amid Republican gains in the House and Senate -- as proof that the "pundits" were wrong and Bush's strategy was right.
"There's a word for this kind of victory," he said. "It's called a mandate."
Mehlman, a Harvard Law School graduate who gave up legal work for a career as an operative, has a ravenous appetite for political data, on issues such as voting patterns among key demographic blocs and recent returns in Ohio counties. It proved a useful skill for a political model that placed new emphasis on field strategy -- reaching voters individually, not just through mass advertising, and ensuring that they went to the polls on Election Day.
The Bush campaign, in a grass-roots effort generally credited with being a notch above similar efforts on the Democratic side, reached its partisans through a massive e-mail database of 7.5 million names, phone bank operations that placed 27 million calls, unprecedented door-knocking in GOP neighborhoods, and niche advertising in such outlets as farm radio, Christian radio, and television programming seen at fitness centers.
Though a bit stern in his exterior, Mehlman represents a generation of Republicans drawn to the party by the sunny style and unabashed conservatism of Ronald Reagan, who was inaugurated when Mehlman was 14 and growing up in Baltimore. His grandparents, he noted, were "New Deal Democrats."
The woman tapped as RNC co-chairman, a subordinate position, is former Ohio House speaker Jo Ann Davidson, who represents an earlier breed of Republican that is now a distinct minority within the GOP.
At age 77, she is nearly four decades Mehlman's senior and is a supporter of abortion rights. With a grandmotherly style -- as well as four grandchildren -- Davidson shares with Mehlman a talent for political organizing; she was a regional chairman for Bush's reelection, overseeing efforts in several states in the Ohio River Valley.