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.
Taylor, an Iowa native and protege of Mehlman's, said the administration recognized long ago that this would be a difficult campaign, coming in the sixth year of a presidency. "History suggests this will be a tough year for us," she said. "But at some point, the weight of our structural advantages makes up ground. And the message is really more important than all of that. When it comes to the war on terror, people have confidence in the policies that are keeping the country safe."
Polling suggests that may be changing -- the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 53 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of terrorism, the lowest number he has ever received on what has been a signature strength. But in every campaign appearance, Bush continues to attack Democrats for being purportedly soft on national security.
The frustration for the White House is that, until two weeks ago, the Bush-Rove plan seemed to be having an impact. The White House used the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as an opportunity to redefine the Nov. 7 elections around the terrorism issue. A modest uptick in Bush's approval ratings followed, and GOP lawmakers began to feel better about their prospects.
But recent events combined to change the campaign conversation. These include the leak of a classified intelligence document suggesting that the Iraq war was complicating the fight against terrorism, a Bob Woodward book alleging administration deceptions about the war, and -- perhaps most critically -- the Foley scandal, which raised questions about whether the GOP tolerated the abuse of minors to protect one of its own.
Nonetheless, White House officials say the president plans to use the final weeks of the campaign to try to reshape the national agenda and to help as many candidates as he can, starting this week with fundraisers for Sen. George Allen (Va.) and Rep. Don Sherwood (Pa.), who is in trouble after admitting an extramarital affair.
"The president is going to be articulating the big issues and do so in a way that grabs people's attention," Rove said, although he quickly added that he believes many of the races will turn on local issues.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, predicted that it will not work: "The bottom line is that people are tired of the president and his policies, and he has been unable to escape it."
He voiced skepticism that Bush is helping Republicans much, despite what he concedes is the president's fundraising prowess. "Most candidates don't want to show up in public with him, and those that do are embarrassed," Schumer said. "If Bush were popular, these races would not be close."
A key focus is Tennessee, central to GOP hopes of holding the Senate, where Republican Bob Corker is locked in an expectedly tight race with Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D). Bush has visited there twice, and Republicans anticipate another visit from Bush and the first lady. White House officials have also pushed Corker to go after Ford more aggressively.
Taylor, who with Rove helps determine Bush's political travel, said the president has helped raise money for some of the most endangered GOP House incumbents, such as Reps. Heather A. Wilson (N.M.) and E. Clay Shaw Jr. (Fla.). Some of Bush's focus more recently has been on helping GOP candidates who are in less intensely competitive districts, she said, citing recent presidential stops on behalf of California Reps. John T. Doolittle and Richard W. Pombo. "For Democrats to take back control of the House, they have to go to this outer ring," she said. "One of the things that's important now is to make sure this outer tier is solid and candidates have the resources they need."
Amy Walter, who tracks the House races for the Cook Political Report, views such stops differently. "It speaks to the fact that there are Republican districts that are now in serious jeopardy," she said.