By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Beset by discouraging polls and division within ideological ranks, the White House is accelerating efforts to woo back disaffected conservatives and energize the Republican base in a reprise of a strategy that succeeded in the last two campaign cycles.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney have given multiple interviews to conservative journalists, senior adviser Karl Rove has telephoned religious and social activists, and the White House has staged signing ceremonies for legislation cracking down on terrorism and illegal immigration. Two weeks before Election Day, Bush aides invited dozens of radio talk show hosts for a marathon broadcast from the White House yesterday to reach conservative listeners.
The message that Bush and others are sending to alienated supporters is that, no matter how upset they have been about various policies or political missteps over the past couple of years, life would be far worse under the Democrats. They name liberal lawmakers who would take charge of key committees and warn conservatives that taxes would go up and protection against terrorists would go down. And they cite, in particular, the confirmation of two conservative Supreme Court justices who might have been blocked by a Democratic Senate.
"The White House strategy is to remind us who would be in leadership in the House and Senate" if Democrats win, said Gary L. Bauer, president of a group called American Values and a Christian conservative who sends a daily e-mail to 100,000 supporters. "The idea is that that's going to be enough to get out most of this vote."
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a close Rove associate, said the White House team is blanketing the conservative circuit. "They're out there, they're talking to people, they're at our meetings," he said. "This is a full-court press." Norquist dismissed conservatives who are threatening to stay home on Election Day: "They're not doing anything other than whining."
Some conservatives said it is too late. "They honestly need a baseball bat against the head," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who helped Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) take over Congress in the 1990s. "Because if they don't change the lexicon immediately, as bad as this election is going to be, they're going to lose the presidency in 2008. I've given up on 2006. They've already made so many mistakes, there's no way they can fix it in two weeks. But I'm worried now they're going to lose all the marbles."
The White House courtship of the right paid enormous dividends in the past, but this year it is complicated by a far more skeptical audience than in 2002 and 2004. Conservatives who were key to those victories have grown frustrated with the Bush policies on federal spending, immigration, Iraq and foreign affairs, and uncertain of his commitment to issues such as preventing legalized same-sex marriage. The Mark Foley page scandal did not help reassure "values voters," as strategists call them, nor did the publication of a book by former White House official David Kuo saying that Bush aides dismissed Christian conservatives as "nuts."
Republicans in Washington Post-ABC News polls are unified behind GOP House candidates, but somewhat less so than Democrats are behind theirs. Ten percent of Republicans in the latest survey said they plan to vote Democratic this year, compared with 4 percent of Democrats who intend to cross over. One reason is that Democrats have made some headway among traditionally conservative groups.
In the most recent poll, 29 percent of self-identified conservatives said they plan to vote for Democrats for the House, compared with 17 percent in 2004. Among white evangelical Protestants, 30 percent favor Democrats, compared with 25 percent two years ago. At the same time, Republicans report being as enthusiastic as Democrats about voting this year, belying the assumption that they might stay home.
"This is going to be a very important part of the election," said White House political director Sara Taylor. "In a traditional midterm headwind, Republicans are going to have to make sure they turn out their base. In places where they do that, Republicans are going to win races they're supposed to win. In places where they don't do that, they're going to have a much harder time."
The White House has tried to rev up its base in various ways. Bush has given interviews to Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot, and groups of conservative columnists and talk show hosts. Cheney appeared last week on Rush Limbaugh's radio show and yesterday gave an interview to conservative television and radio commentator Sean Hannity.
"Nancy is not in sync with the vast majority of the American people," Cheney said, referring to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who would become speaker if Democrats took over the House. "Nancy represents what I think is that side of the Democratic Party that has not been aggressive of and does not believe in a really robust, aggressive prosecution of the global war on terror."
To maximize the blitz, the White House set up a tent on the North Lawn yesterday and let 42 radio hosts broadcast live during the day. Because it was on government property, "Radio Day" included outlets such as National Public Radio, but "it's mostly conservative talk," White House press secretary Tony Snow said. "This is a chance to talk to people and get heard," said Snow, a former talk show host who did more than 20 interviews yesterday and has also been dispatched to talk to conservative Web sites such as the Power Line blog.
Rove wandered into the tent with a piece of paper guiding him to a dozen interviews yesterday. Others on hand included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, presidential counselor Dan Bartlett, White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, and budget director Rob Portman.
Iraq was a subject of discussion as officials tried to explain Bush's evolving rhetoric. Snow minimized the decision to no longer describe Bush's policy as "stay the course," telling Fox that he found only eight times when Bush used the phrase. The liberal Center for American Progress then quickly posted a list of 30 instances when Bush argued to "stay the course." And Rumsfeld told Hannity that it is "nonsense" to say Bush is "backing away from 'stay the course,' " saying he only wants to avoid confusion.
The White House has reached out in other ways, too. Rove hosted a conference call Monday with key conservative leaders, reminding them of the stakes of the elections. And the White House has staged events to highlight Bush's conservative positions. In Scottsdale, Ariz., Bush signed a spending bill that pays for more border patrol agents and the beginning of a new fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, a nod to conservatives who consider him soft on illegal immigration.
At times, though, the White House does not highlight actions that would help it with the right, leaving it to activists to do it themselves. In the same bill, unmentioned by Bush, is a provision banning authorities from confiscating lawfully owned guns during emergencies, a response to reports of firearms taken away in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
"I certainly didn't get a call about a signing ceremony," said National Rifle Association lobbyist Chris Cox. "But quite frankly, it was irrelevant as long as the bill was signed into law." The NRA notified its 4 million members and reminded them, as the group's Web site put it, that it "makes it clear why gun owners can never, ever sit on the sidelines during an election."
Paul M. Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, said the White House is not doing enough to repair relations with the base. "I'm not seeing anything," he said. "Maybe they're doing certain things with people who are closer to them. But in my case, I've not gotten any special treatment or invitations or whatever."
Still, Weyrich said the White House may yet benefit from conservatives coming home. "It'll all come down to conservatives," he said. "For a long time, I've heard nothing but 'I'm not going to vote for these jerks.' Now I'm hearing 'Well, I suppose we'll have to vote the jerks back in and see what we can do.' "
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.