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As Elections Near, Dueling With Dollars

John Lapp decides what political ads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will run across the country as the party tries to retake control of the House of Representatives.
John Lapp decides what political ads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will run across the country as the party tries to retake control of the House of Representatives. (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee)

Under campaign law, the independent organizations are prohibited from coordinating with candidates they assist. There are limits to the discussions Forti and Lapp can have with even their bosses, as well as with other staffers on campaign committees. This leaves both with enormous power.

Forti ran the NRCC's independent expenditure effort in the previous two election cycles. He maintains a spartan staff, relying on his own campaign know-how as well as the legal guidance of NRCC general counsel Don McGahn.

At the White House, such strategists as Karl Rove have boasted publicly that Republicans' superior program for turning out voters -- which exceeded expectations in 2002 and 2004 -- will work again to save them from defeat Nov. 7. But a senior Republican operative involved in party planning said the GOP's turnout operation can usually make a decisive difference only in races decided by about one percentage point. Moreover, the operative said, it is difficult to set up turnout operations during the homestretch of races that Republicans previously did not expect to be so competitive, such as Souder's. "It is easier to move financial resources than human resources," the operative said.

So Forti is moving the financial resources around to improve his odds, sometimes for reasons that are not obvious to outsiders. (He declined to comment on party strategy.)

The NRCC, for instance, is spending money to win the open seat vacated by Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), who has been indicted, and to defend Rep. John N. Hostettler (Ind.), despite what polls and operatives suggest are fading prospects for victory in both races. "It forces them to spend money," said a GOP strategist familiar with endgame planning.

Most of the time, spending is a more straightforward investment in self-preservation. Republicans late last week started running ads to defend Bass and have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect Rep. Richard W. Pombo (Calif.). Democrats have bought television time in both districts.

"If they go anywhere, we will just follow them in," the GOP strategist said. Republicans on Capitol Hill are more concerned about Pombo than Bass.

The calculations change by the day. Republicans had all but written off Rep. Don Sherwood (Pa.) a few weeks ago after Democrats ran ads highlighting allegations from his former mistress that he had tried to strangle her. But GOP polling now shows the race tightening after an appearance by President Bush increased to 70 percent from 50 percent the percentage of conservatives who said they were excited about turning out to vote for the incumbent. Democrats said their polls still show Sherwood being clobbered.

"Republicans are playing a game of whack-a-mole while we are expanding the number of races in play by the day," Lapp said.

Lapp -- who was picked for the job after a three-minute first-time meeting with DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) in 2004 -- has slowly expanded the number of seats Democrats are targeting, but not as broadly and quickly as some strategists would like. Lapp runs a much larger operation than Forti; it includes a personal team of opposition researchers. He is called a "maniac, but in a good way," by Bill Burton, a longtime DCCC colleague.

Lapp, like Forti, lives on polling these days. He reviews a half-dozen new polls each day and can turn data into an on-air ad within 24 hours.

But there is more to smart spending than voter surveys.

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