Such a place used to be called a "boiler room," but now, at the Republican National Committee, it looks more like a video game room. Inside, a party official is demonstrating a campaign '82 operation he calls "Star Wars."
"I'm a regional field director in New England," he tells a Grand Old Party computer wizard. "What do I need to know?"
A few buttons are pressed and up on the video screen pops a memo of political intelligence: the chairman of a state Republican party in New England is about to hit up the national committee for a sizable loan. The request will be coming by mail any day now.
"Okay," says the aide, beaming with justifiable pride, "now I'm running for governor in Michigan and I need an experienced press secretary who is a loyal Republican and able to relocate--immediately."
More buttons are pressed. Up pops the resume of just such a job-seeker.
Now for the finale, against every Republican's Darth Vader. "Let's say Teddy Kennedy has just come into my state to campaign for my opponent, and at the airport he told the TV cameras he has always favored cutting Medicaid to balance the budget. What can I do to prove he is lying?"
Again with the buttons. Up pops a 1980 quote from Kennedy arguing against cuts in Medicaid--in plenty of time for a Republican rebuttal that could put a damper on Kennedy's splash on the evening news.
Nearby, other buttons make all of the above possible. These are in what used to be called a telephone bank. It is a computer bank now.
"We just computerized our phone bank a week and a half ago," RNC finance director Phil Smith says. It has doubled the speed at which the already verdant Republican Party can solicit funds, he says. And as he goes on, in this age of politics by Star Wars, he lapses into a new, altogether appropriate label for the way the Republicans are politicking today:
"I don't think any other marketing operation has it."
They have buttons at the Republican headquarters that do everything for the party's 1982 effort, except that the two buttons they need most are missing: the one that will lower the unemployment rate and the one that will lower interest rates.
A year ago, Republican strategists were bubbling about how, at last, a political realignment of the American electorate was taking place. For the first time, polls were showing that more people were identifying themselves as Republicans than as Democrats. It was, Republicans told each other, the dawning of their new age of majority party status.
But no more. "The Republicans had significant gains in 1981, but they have lost that now," says Robert Teeter, whose firm has recently completed a nationwide poll for the Republican Party. Richard Wirthlin, the president's pollster, agrees.
Largely as a result of the economic recession, and the perception that President Reagan's policies have been unfairly skewed toward helping the rich, the Democrats once again are back on top.
Wirthlin's polls show that 51 percent of his respondents consider themselves Democrats, and 33 percent Republicans. Independents have remained a relatively constant figure in his polls. Blue-collar Democrats who last June associated themselves with Reagan have gone back to the Democratic fold, his figures show.
But here there is disagreement between the Republicans' top two pollsters. Teeter's figures lead him to a somewhat more optimistic conclusion. He concedes that Democrats are once again favored by those interviewed in the polls, but only by a plurality. Significantly, he maintains, the Democrats have not gained back all that they lost last year to the Republicans. Instead, both parties have lost support to the independents.
"So far," says Teeter, "I think we have . . . de-alignment. The Republican Party still has the opportunity to achieve realignment. But it will take time, perhaps two or three elections, to tell."
That is small comfort to those Republicans at the White House and Republican campaign committees who must deal in the here and now, or, at the outside, the here and November.
Reality for them is the latest jarring news from George Gallup: that the public is inclined to vote for a Democrat over a Republican for Congress by a 20-point margin, 54 to 34. This nationwide sample could indicate large increases in the House for the Democrats, who control that chamber by a 50-seat margin.
These numbers are not moving the Republican way. But officials at the White House and the Republican campaign committees expect to fight these numbers with a numerical superiority of their own.
* The Republican National Committee has a budget of $38 million and a staff of 350. The Democratic National Committee has a budget of $8 million and a staff of 103.
* The National Republican Congressional Committee has a budget of $37 million and a staff of 84. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has a budget of $6 million and a staff of 32.
* The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has a budget of $20 million and a staff of 40. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has a budget of $3.5 million and a staff of six.
At the White House, political affairs chief Edward Rollins and his assistants have been deep in calculation.
Their figuring centers around a 2 percent solution: having a presidential election winner at the head of a party ticket adds an average of 2 percentage points to each candidate on his party's ticket. Also, there are 38 House races each election year that are decided by a margin of 2 percent or less.
"Since this is not a presidential election year," says one Republican strategist, "the key is that when you are in the White House you have got to artificially buy those two points back.
"You do that through resources . . . . Every Republican out there will get more from the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee than ever before. But resources are more than that. A presidential visit is a resource. A presidential letter is a resource. A presidential radio tape is a resource. A presidential film clip is a resource.
"But that's not all. When you've got the White House, everybody's a resource. Cabinet people are big people. The vice president is big people."
White House plans for "buying back" the two points are going on schedule, Republican strategists say. It all comes down to targeting.
Toward that end, Rollins has come up with a calculus that reduces all of the nation's political imperatives and political hopefuls to numbers. It is a copy of a plan created by Hamilton Jordan for Jimmy Carter in the fall of 1976.
And, just as Jordan's plan was ridiculed privately by many Democrats, so now many Republicans also privately scoff at Rollins' plan.
In part this may be because Rollins is not well known in political Washington. Unlike most political operatives, he is considered by politicians to be rather reclusive, shunning the frequent telephone conversations and camaraderie, while getting credit for maintaining the first-rate staff that he inherited.
Rollins has worked out a complex formula for assigning point values to each state, based on whether it has a close Senate race, a gubernatorial race and the narrowness of its congressional races. He then assigns resource points for a visit by the president, the vice president and Cabinet members, and other resource points for a presidential commercial taping, and so on.
Other Republican officials say this pretty much tells strategists what they knew anyway. But no matter, because that is the way it is being done. The White House is targeting 40 House races and eight Senate races for maximum allocation of resources.
The Republican National Committee target list is slightly larger, with 50 races in the House. The Republican Congressional Committee has set its sights loftier, at 100 or more races.
Targeting: for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, it means contributing only to 80 races. For the National Republican Congressional Committee, it means contributing to all GOP incumbents, and then giving special, additional aid to the high-priority races.
A year ago, Republican National Chairman Richard Richards and Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicted that the GOP would capture control of the House in 1982.
Republicans, encouraged by recent population shifts to already strong Republican areas, felt confident that they would score big gains in the redistricting of the congressional map.
But legislatures and state and federal court decisions have given the edge, if there is one, to the Democrats. And the economy has soured.
That led White House chief of staff James A. Baker III to say, much to the consternation of Richards et al., that the Republicans will do well to hold their congressional losses to less than 37, which is what a president's party loses on the average in off-year elections.
In the Senate, where 21 of the 33 races involve incumbent Democrats, GOP strategists talk optimistically of how they could improve their party's control of the chamber by gaining at least three to four, and perhaps as many as eight or nine, seats.
But elsewhere, Republican officials concede that the party might be missing an opportunity for big gains because the GOP has not found strong challengers for several Democratic incumbents who appear quite vulnerable: liberals Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio, Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan, in particular.
Richards concedes that, in general, this has been a problem. It is easier to get top quality candidates to challenge incumbents in congressional races, he says. A Senate incumbent has been in Washington longer, he explains, "And by the time they've abused their franking privilege for 18 years . . . he spooks a lot of folks."
Republican fund-raising on the Senate side is good but not great. This is in part because of a political scrap, which pitted the White House staff against Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), but did the most damage to GOP Senate prospects.
Packwood infuriated the president and his aides by attacking Reagan's budget cuts and warning that his policies were alienating women and blacks from the party, which subsequent polls confirmed.
White House aides retaliated by halting the committee's new fund-raising appeal letter, signed by Reagan and containing prominent mention of Packwood, after the letter had been sent to 9 million potential givers.
The divisive and bitter fight led to a divisive and bizarre compromise. The president's signature was removed from the letter that had already been sent to the 9 million.
That amended letter now will be sent to 8 million people over the signature of Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), along with a separate, new letter, containing no mention of Packwood, signed by Reagan, and saying that he thinks Baker's letter is a fine idea.
Committee officials estimate that this compromise cost the committee between $1.5 million and $3 million.
In the age of technological politics, Rick Shelby is the PAC man of the GOP.
"The real story of the election will be the PACs political action committees ," says one Republican strategist.
Shelby, officially the national campaign chairman of the RNC, has embarked on an effort of powerhouse persuasion as part of a decision commanded by the White House.
He is trying to convince as many as 225 of industry's PACs to give the maximum legal contribution of $5,000 each to each of the 40 House races targeted by the White House. That could mean more than $1 million for each House race from the PACs alone.
The significance could prove enormous. Only two House candidates spent more than $1 million in 1980, Reps. James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) and Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.). Only 33 spent more than half a million dollars.
In addition, the Republicans, in their affluence, figure they are in good position to take full advantage of the 1980 amendments to the federal campaign act that permit national parties to give aid to the states for so-called "party-building" efforts.
It is a loophole that may be large enough to drive an elephant through. The GOP plans to contribute in ways that are as helpful to candidates as direct cash contributions, from identifying potential Republican voters in the districts to doing research on the opposition candidates.
"As the law reads now, you can spend unlimited sums, as long as it is for party-building," Shelby explains. "In a sense, the only limitation is your imagination."
EPILOGUE: It is the lore of politics that a president's job approval rating bears greatly on the prospects of his party's congressional candidates. And so, RNC deputy chairman Rich Bond, who the White House sent over to the RNC to run things its way, uses this argument to enforce party loyalty among disenchanted Republicans in Congress:
"The ship is out to sea, and anyone who jumps into the water is not going to make it all the way to land on their own. So if they believe the ship is in trouble, they had better grab a bucket and start bailing."
But RNC Chairman Richards, who has known troubled waters during his tenure, is sailing a different route.
"I find myself more optimistic than most people," he said, "including even my own staffers . . . that have access to the data." He interjects a commercial about Reagan: "I don't think my thinking is tainted . . . . The guy's mind is like a steel trap."
And he adds, in a classic bit of circuitous logic on the meaning of public-opinion polls:
"I think Ronald Reagan is more popular than people give him credit for."