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White House Upbeat About GOP Prospects

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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Amid widespread panic in the Republican establishment about the coming midterm elections, there are two people whose confidence about GOP prospects strikes even their closest allies as almost inexplicably upbeat: President Bush and his top political adviser, Karl Rove.

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill are bracing for losses of 25 House seats or more. But party operatives say Rove is predicting that, at worst, Republicans will lose only 8 to 10 seats -- shy of the 15-seat threshold that would cede control to Democrats for the first time since the 1994 elections and probably hobble the balance of Bush's second term.

In the Senate, Rove and associates believe, a Democratic victory would require the opposition to "run the table," as one official put it, to pick up the necessary six seats -- a prospect the White House seems to regard as nearly inconceivable.

The Mark Foley page scandal and its fallout have many Republicans panicked, but Rove professes to be taking it in stride. "The data we are seeing from individual races and the national polls would tend to indicate that people can divorce Foley's personal action from the party," he said in a brief interview Thursday.

The official White House line of supreme self-assurance comes from the top down. Bush has publicly and privately banished any talk of losing the GOP majorities, in part to squelch any loss of nerve among his legions. Come January, he said last week, "We'll have a Republican speaker and a Republican leader of the Senate."

The question is whether this is a case of justified confidence -- based on Bush's and Rove's electoral record and knowledge of the money, technology and other assets at their command -- or of self-delusion. Even many Republicans suspect the latter. Three GOP strategists with close ties to the White House flatly predicted the loss of the House, though they would not do so on the record for fear of offending senior Bush aides.

At this point in the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, Bush was on the offensive, racing around the country and providing public lifts to many candidates. This year, by contrast, is mostly about defense. Bush lately has been stumping for vulnerable House Republicans who, only a few weeks ago, seemed safe for reelection. Meanwhile, Bush' s own unpopularity has made House and Senate campaigns think twice about using him.

"You have to be careful where you take him," said an adviser to a GOP candidate in a close Senate race. In the past, this source said, the White House usually dictated where the president went. "They are probably more cooperative. They will go into the places and formats we suggest," he added.

To Rove and the small cadre of operatives who have been at his side throughout the administration -- including Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and White House political director Sara Taylor -- confidence flows from a conviction that a political operation that has produced three consecutive national victories is capable of one more, despite voter disaffection with Iraq and GOP scandals in Washington.

Republican officials say the three closely coordinate strategy, with constant e-mails and a daily conference call. They see this familiarity -- in many respects it is the same team leading GOP strategy as in the past two elections -- as one advantage they have over Democrats, whose leaders on Capitol Hill and national party officials have been at odds on strategy.

So far, there have been few surprises in the Bush-Rove playbook, which seems little changed over the past four years. It includes tapping the powers of incumbency, mobilizing Christian conservatives and others in the GOP base, and seeking to polarize the electorate around national security and taxes. A huge effort to raise money by Bush, Vice President Cheney and first lady Laura Bush seems to be paying off: By Taylor's calculation, the various GOP campaigns and party committees will have a $55 million money advantage in the final three weeks of the campaign.

The RNC is also planning another big get-out-the-vote drive in the final three days before the elections. Rove believes that many of the polls in individual House and Senate races understate what he expects to be a GOP advantage in turnout, according to one party strategist who has heard him discuss the midterms.


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