For President Bush and Karl Rove, it's still election season.
A mere 60 days after the last election, the president and his political seer have been busily assembling a Republican lineup for the next. They have been recruiting Senate candidates to run against high-profile Democratic incumbents nationwide.
Last March, Rove sat down with Harry M. Reid of Nevada, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, for a friendly dinner with their wives. Now Rove is preparing to feast again -- not with Reid, but on him. On Dec. 10, Rove met in Washington with Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) about a possible run against Reid. A White House meeting between Bush and Gibbons is planned, Republican sources said.
Rove and the Bush White House have been involved in many of the 19 states in which Democratic senators are up for reelection in 2004, Republicans close to the White House said. In South Dakota, Bush aides have been working with former representative John Thune on a fight for Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle's seat. (Thune, recruited by the White House last year, almost defeated Sen. Tim Johnson.) Rep. Richard Burr of North Carolina has been saying he would have White House support for a bid for Sen. John Edwards's seat, and GOP leaders have been coalescing around him.
In South Carolina, Rep. Joe Wilson was the first Republican to issue a press release declaring his interest in Sen. Ernest F. Hollings's seat when Hollings, a Democrat, said he might retire. But on Dec. 17, Wilson announced that he would not run. As it happens, Rove was in South Carolina on Dec. 16 to receive an honorary degree and to meet with Wilson. There is suspicion among Democrats in the state that Rove urged Wilson not to run, making things easier for the White House's preferred candidate, Rep. Jim DeMint, but a senior White House adviser said the Senate race was not discussed.
Bush himself has been involved in the North Dakota Senate race. When that state's former GOP governor Ed Schafer attended a White House Christmas party on Dec. 12, the president jokingly called him "Senator." He urged: "Don't make a decision about this until we get a chance to sit down and talk about it," Schafer told a wire service. When Schafer demurred on a race for Democratic Sen. Byron L. Dorgan's seat, Bush continued: "That's fine, but your country needs you. We'll have to talk about it."
Before the party, Schafer attended a political briefing with Rove and White House political director Ken Mehlman, who also had a lengthy private discussion with Schafer.
Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a Washington Republican, has received similar treatment. Rove has urged her to run against Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. Dunn is reluctant. But the state's Republican chairman, Chris Vance, has said that "the White House is all over her" -- a characterization the president's advisers do not dispute.
The White House's already intense involvement in the 2004 Senate race is producing raw feelings among the targeted Senate Democrats. "The question floating around Democratic Senate circles is why the president and his aides are more concerned with recruiting a challenger to assistant Democratic leader Harry Reid than paying attention to North Korea, Iraq and the war on terrorism," said one adviser to Reid.
Still, it's not surprising that the White House is so involved. Many of Bush and Rove's handpicked candidates for the 2002 election -- such as Georgia's Saxby Chambliss, Minnesota's Norm Coleman and Missouri's Jim Talent -- are now in the Senate. "Clearly, any White House wants to make sure there are senators elected who share the president's priorities," said a Republican official working with the White House on the 2004 race.
A small group of journalists invited to tour the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, last Thursday "limited themselves to small talk" for 90 minutes, as one of them put it, after White House officials suggested Bush might otherwise cut short the tour. But another group of reporters was not so compliant. Three journalists, suspecting Bush would pay a visit to the Crawford Coffee Station on New Year's Eve, strolled over for lunch in hopes of being there if he arrived. A White House staff member appeared, wrote down their names and urged them to leave, telling them Bush "has said he won't come if you stay." The scribes stood by their cheeseburgers. "We told him that we were paying customers and had no intention of leaving," said Rachel Graves of the Houston Chronicle. The White House backed down, and Bush got his burger.
With Iraq and North Korea vying to be the most evil member of the axis, things can get complicated. Last Thursday, a reporter began a question to Bush by asking: "If we do have to go to war "
The president interrupted for a clarification. "With which country?" he inquired.