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Brand on the Run

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, May 16, 2008

Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican elected in the face of the 2006 Democratic sweep, understands the panic that took hold in his party this week following its loss in a ruby-red district.

Corker is familiar with the feeling. His readiness to tell his story says much about the alienation of many Republicans from the national party's stale approach to politics and the limits of negative advertising. It is also a warning to GOP strategists who think that personal attacks on Barack Obama will be sufficient to win the presidency.

Facing a tough contest against Harold Ford Jr., a young, telegenic African American congressman, Corker says he watched his campaign flounder as his consultants ran television ads that tried to paint his opponent, a moderately conservative Democrat, as a "liberal."

"They were grotesque," Corker said of his own commercials in an interview this week. "It was just the same old stuff." By contrast, he said, Ford's spots were "fresh and refreshing."

Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, called in new consultants and switched to a more positive campaign. "We kept the race about Tennessee," he said. "We focused on my life, on who I was as a person." Independent voters who had been attracted to Ford started moving Corker's way.

Yet the national party almost blew the race near the end, Corker said, by running an ad that many saw as racist. The commercial, aired without Corker's knowledge, included a young, blonde, white actress declaring that she had met Ford "at the Playboy party." It ended with her whispering the words: "Harold, call me."

Corker was furious, and not just because his six-point lead melted into a four-point deficit. The party eventually pulled the radioactive ad, and Corker won narrowly. The senator has advised Republican colleagues in tough races this year to resist national party ads that mention their opponents.

Few Republicans will go that far. But Democrat Travis Childers's victory Tuesday in a Mississippi district that had given 62 percent of its vote to President Bush in 2004 caused something of a nervous breakdown in GOP ranks, breeding a crisis of confidence among Republicans about the party's consulting establishment and national leadership.

It was the third Republican special-election loss in a row, all in House districts that the party had counted as its own. It was the second time in less than two weeks that a big-money advertising campaign aimed at linking a conservative Democrat to Obama had failed.

In a remarkably open rebellion, Republican members of Congress and party strategists decried Bush's role in bringing down the Republican "brand," the party's failure to offer new policies, and the futility of campaigns rooted in the 1980s and '90s.

Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who is retiring, confessed to me that if his party "were dog food, they'd take us off the shelf and put us in a landfill."

Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, said party leaders have "got their heads in the sand. They've kept on this track, they keep expecting miracles, and there are no miracles."

And Corker said voters did not believe the Republicans were "solving the major problems," notably guaranteeing Americans health coverage. "We just haven't been responsible," Corker said. "We deserve to be where we are. I hope we right ourselves."

The one comfort, said Davis, lies in John McCain's ability to run well ahead of his party. "McCain has his own brand. He's not dragged down by the Republican brand."

Fabrizio sees McCain as successfully employing Bill Clinton's strategy of "triangulation" by "using George Bush and the Democrats to try to define himself by setting himself off against both of them."

A Post-ABC News poll this week gave partial support to this view: While voters gave the Democrats a 21-point advantage over Republicans as the party better equipped to handle the nation's problems, McCain trailed Obama by only seven points.

Yet Obama's still-sizable lead suggests that McCain will have trouble escaping the anti-Republican uprising. Democrats are trying to limit his room to maneuver by linking the presumptive Republican nominee to Bush's policies. Fabrizio argues that McCain's urgent need to run as an independent means that "McCain could win in a landslide, and we still lose the House and Senate significantly."

In this spring of discontent, Republicans are turning on each other because even their best news is bad news.

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