When It Comes to Politics, Charlie Cook Has the Prophecy Market Cornered

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The pharaoh had Joseph. The Greeks had the Oracle at Delphi. Washington has Charlie Cook.

Please tell us, Seer of Future Congresses, how many seats the Democrats will pick up in the House on Election Day.

"Twenty to 35," Cook answers.

And how about in the Senate, OProphet on the Potomac?

"At least four," the man with the crystal ball says. "Most likely five or six."

What fate does the seer see for Sen. George Allen (R-Va.)?

"He wins ugly, but he wins," Cook divines.

And, pray tell, how are the planets aligning for Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.)?

"Gone," he decrees.

The midterm elections are two weeks away, but the powerful cannot wait that long to learn of the outcome. And so they call in Cook, who, for a fee of $5,000 to $20,000, gives his audiences the (very) early returns.

Last week he spoke to pharmaceutical and insurance groups. On Monday, he flew to Las Vegas and back to talk to the American Beverage Association. Later this week it's American Express and a hedge fund in New York and the paper industry in Georgia. Yesterday found Cook at a breakfast with the DLA Piper law firm, lunch with automobile manufacturers and dinner in Boston with a corporate housing group.

All are looking for the same thing: next month's election returns. And Cook has them. "Senators Santorum in Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine in Ohio are pretty much done," he told the Piper audience at the Willard hotel. And the lifelines of Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) aren't looking any longer. "I'd be surprised if any of those four can survive," Cook informed the crowd of lobbyists, diplomats and journalists.

The firm's representatives treated their visiting sage with great deference. James Blanchard, a former Michigan governor, introduced him as "a renowned expert." Former defense secretary Bill Cohen read Cook's credentials to the audience: "one of the best political handicappers . . . the Picasso of election analysis."

"He's hot," observed Rosemary Freeman, one of the event coordinators.

That's not the first description that comes to mind for Cook, who entered the ballroom lugging an overstuffed canvas bag, a torn, padded envelope and an overflowing blue file folder. Chubby and partial to big eyeglasses, he had the tail of his tie tucked into his shirt. He planted his Starbucks venti caffe latte on the head table, where he was joined by the Canadian ambassador and a former NATO secretary general.

Cook's well-rehearsed speech includes a reference to his posterior, an allusion to the movie "Young Frankenstein," and a tortured metaphor involving storms and levees to compare the 2006 election to the one in 1994. "The wave is bigger, but there are fewer structures on the beach," he forecast.

Cook is not the boldest of election prognosticators (that honor goes to Stuart Rothenberg), nor the most telegenic (washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza gets the nod there), but he is surely the most prominent. On contract with NBC, he was on "Meet the Press" on Sunday and taped segments for the "Today Show" and "NBC Nightly News." He commissions his own poll, and his column appears once a week in the National Journal. A Nexis search finds 873 mentions in the past 60 days for him and his company, the Cook Political Report.

And while he's not always on the mark (he admits to having "tread marks on my forehead" after understating the Republican gains in '94) he's close enough that nobody challenges his forecasts. "I'm not as much of an expert as he is, so I have to defer to him," said Dick Gephardt, a former House Democratic leader, after Cook's talk to the Piper firm.

Fortified by another venti caffe latte and a double espresso shot with cream, Cook took a cab to NBC's studio for a hit with anchor Joe Scarborough. While he was in the makeup room, a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch begged him to talk about Ohio's Senate candidates. After his on-air comments, he slipped into "Hardball" producer Tammy Haddad's office to give the staff an update on Senate races in Tennessee (trending Republican) and New Jersey (trending Democratic). "Hardball" host Chris Matthews stopped Cook on the way out to inquire about three Pennsylvania House races.

A quick cab ride got Cook to the Cannon office building just in time for his luncheon speech to the automobile group. Posters showing a plate and fork advertised "Lunch with Cook." The group's chief, Fred Webber, gave the intro: "To give us a sneak peek of what's going to happen on Election Day, no one -- no one -- is better than Charlie Cook."

Cook gave the same speech about Frankenstein and hurricanes, then offered some presidential prognostication for dessert. "I would give McCain a 60, 65 percent chance of winning the Republican nomination," he disclosed. By contrast, he added, "I'll win the Tour de France before Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination."

The oracle hopped into a waiting sedan to catch his flight to Boston. The car ride gave him the first chance in hours to check his BlackBerry -- and to make some last-minute revisions to his prophecies. "Montana closing more than thought," he typed in an e-mail to a reporter. "Burns might not be dead yet."

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