Bush Shows Strategy for Keeping Hill Majorities

By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS, March 24 -- President Bush on Friday provided a preview of his two-front strategy for protecting the Republican congressional majority in an ominous political climate: hammer Democrats on national security and the economy, and raise millions of dollars for embattled GOP candidates such as Rep. Michael E. Sodrel (Ind.).

At a luncheon fundraiser here, Bush repeatedly called Sodrel an indispensable ally in fighting terrorism, and emphasized his support for the military and a robust U.S. foreign policy. Sodrel, he said, "understands this is a nation at war" against terrorists intent on striking America again. It is imperative that voters elect candidates who know that "there is an enemy which hates those of us who embrace freedom and would like to strike us again." He warned the crowd that Democrats will raise taxes and harm the economy if they are elected. "If you want the government in your pocket, vote Democrat," Bush said.

It was not cheap to hear the president's newest campaign pitch eight months before the midterm elections. Republicans paid $1,000 for the buffet lunch and presidential speech; $10,000 if they wanted a picture snapped at a private reception afterward. For Sodrel, who won by a thinner margin than any other House member in 2004, the $500,000 he expected to raise through the event is much needed to fend off a tough challenger, former Democratic representative Baron Hill. Afterward, Bush flew to Pennsylvania for a nighttime fundraiser that was expected to net half a million dollars for Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who faces one of the toughest reelection campaigns in the country.

The back-to-back events capped a week that highlighted how a president dogged by sagging poll numbers and an unpopular war plans to help his party and himself. Election analysts say Republicans could lose seats, if not their House and Senate majorities, if the public's gloomy view of Bush, Congress and the direction of the country does not brighten this summer.

A Democratic majority in the House or the Senate would be likely to launch hearings and investigations into the war and other issues, and would be positioned to stop the Bush agenda in the remaining two years of the Bush presidency. "The Democrats' plan for 2006? Take the House and Senate, and impeach the president," Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, warned in a fundraising e-mail sent to party members this week. "With our nation at war, is this the kind of Congress you want?"

Bush is adjusting his approach to befit the environment and is shifting into campaign mode. He realizes, aides say, that he is no longer the political force he was in the days before the 2002 and 2004 elections, when lawmakers lined up for high-profile presidential visits. In fact, some lawmakers in tight races in swing states such as Ohio have passed on chances to appear side by side with Bush at recent events. Santorum, for instance, cited "scheduling conflicts" in skipping a recent Bush speech in his state but has not missed a chance to raise money with the president at private gatherings like the one held Friday night.

Bush remains popular with the Republican base, and he and Vice President Cheney are top fundraising draws. GOP strategists say Bush and Cheney have sent word to Capitol Hill that they would be happy to raise money even for those candidates who, for political reasons, want to put some distance between themselves and the White House.

The short-term goal is stabilize Bush's low public-approval ratings by talking about the progress and prospects for victory in Iraq. The White House also hopes to minimize intramural GOP feuding with a skeletal domestic agenda. Congressional leaders have a legislative schedule that will have members out of Washington much of the time.

With little notice, Cheney has emerged as a central player in this strategy. The vice president has participated in 46 fundraisers since the beginning of 2005, including 25 for House members, according to his office. He took part in five events this week alone, including one that raised $500,000 for Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) Thursday night.

In Florida on Friday, Cheney played host at an event for Rep. Ric Keller (R) and offered a variation of the new White House attack on Democrats that aides said will become a staple of campaign-oriented speeches in the weeks ahead. Attacking figures ranging from Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, Cheney portrayed the entire Democratic leadership as wobbly in the fight against terrorism.

"Leading Democrats have demanded a sudden withdrawal from the battle against terrorists in Iraq -- the very kind of retreat that Osama bin Laden has been predicting," Cheney said. "And with that sorry record, the leaders of the Democratic Party have decided to run on the theme of competence. If they're competent to fight this war, then I ought to be singing on 'American Idol.' "

Recent polls show a growing number of Americans questioning the competence of the Bush White House. Since the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Democrats have made the charge of incompetence the centerpiece of their attack on Bush, and many Republicans are worried that it is sticking. "The president and I welcome the debate, because every voter in America needs to know how the leaders of the Democratic Party view the war on terror," Cheney said.

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