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An Old-Fashioned Win

By David S. Broder
Thursday, November 4, 2004; Page A25

Never shy about its claims, the Bush White House sent Chief of Staff Andrew Card out at the ungodly hour of 5:39 a.m. yesterday to assert that President Bush had won reelection by cinching the 20 electoral votes of Ohio.

This time the boast was better-founded than was the similar claim four years ago, when Florida was still locked in a dispute that was to last 36 days and wind up in the Supreme Court.


(The Bushes At A Rally In New Mexico On Monday./Pablo Martinez M)

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Within hours, John F. Kerry placed the phone call to the president conceding that Ohio would be in the Republican column again -- and Bush could stay in the White House.

This time, unlike 2000, Bush bested the Democratic nominee in the national popular vote, the standard most Americans tell pollsters that they believe should determine who sits in the Oval Office. He leads Kerry by 3 1/2 million votes.

And he did it the right way -- the old-fashioned way -- by galvanizing more of his supporters than Kerry managed to. This was not, as some embittered Democrats had forecast, the result of voter intimidation or suppression. Democrats and their allies in labor and liberal organizations did their best job ever of mobilizing their base, only to see the Republicans match and exceed that effort.

What happened this year was foreshadowed by the Republican success in the midterm elections of 2002. Much as it may pain them to admit it, Democrats have to realize that the combination of Bush's appeal to conservatives and the organizational techniques developed under the direction of Karl Rove are beating them at their own game.

This was another top-to-bottom Republican victory, one that expanded GOP majorities in the House and Senate, just as the 2002 election had done, and defeated the Democrats' skillful Senate leader, Tom Daschle, in the process. Bush strategist Rove and his partner, Ken Mehlman, the manager of the president's campaign, devoted an unprecedented $125 million or more and years of work to identifying potential Bush supporters in battleground states such as Ohio -- and then getting them to the polls.

They applied on a national scale the tools Rove developed with Bush's encouragement in converting Texas into a one-party Republican state during the six years of Bush's governorship.

A crucial element of the strategy is the mobilization of religious conservatives, those who are normally more conscientious about going to church than about voting. Exit polls showed more than one in five voters Tuesday named moral values as the most important issue determining their vote -- more than cited terrorism, the economy or Iraq. More than three-quarters of them supported Bush.

Terrorism was Bush's trump card in this political game, a high card he had picked up with his stalwart performance after the Sept. 11 attacks and the emotional bond he formed with millions of Americans at that time.

But the economy and Iraq had disappointed or dismayed most of those who went to the polls, and it was remarkable that Bush could overcome the issues of war and jobs that would have sunk most other candidates.

It may well turn out, once the returns are analyzed in detail, that the supreme court of Kerry's own Massachusetts helped the mobilization of these traditionalist and fundamentalist religious voters by its decision last year approving gay marriage.

That decision spurred the submission of initiatives against gay marriage that were passed on Tuesday in all 11 states where they made the ballot -- including Ohio. Phil Burress, who ran the Ohio initiative campaign, told me last week that the volunteers who collected the signatures to qualify it for the ballot also registered 54,000 new voters. The Massachusetts court decision was "a lightning bolt that hit right in the pulpit and ignited the whole congregation," he said.

That will no doubt cross Bush's mind when he contemplates choices for the Supreme Court -- a process whose imminence was dramatized on election eve by the disclosure of Chief Justice William Rehnquist's serious illness.

Democrats were well aware that the future of the judiciary was only one of the prizes at stake in this year's election. They came close to winning, and they can point to the frailty of the mandate that Bush received from a nation still deeply divided, one where most women, city dwellers and minorities voted against the president.

But the democratic process -- in an election that fulfilled all of its most important requirements -- endorsed the Bush presidency. And if we know anything about him, we know he will exercise the full powers of his office.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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