Members of the Republican National Committee came to town to celebrate the party's 2002 midterm election victories this week and launch an ambitious project to register 3 million new GOP voters by next year.
With an air of exuberance, Republicans yesterday formally ratified New York as the site of the party's 2004 national convention, with Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani there to promise that the event will provide a launching pad for Bush's reelection.
White House political director Kenneth Mehlman told RNC members Thursday that the midterm victories had given Bush a unique opportunity. Most presidents are on the defensive in the second half of their first term. But because of gains the party made in November, Bush has the opportunity for "a second 100 days" to launch an ambitious agenda with Congress.
Mindful of the resistance to key elements of Bush's plan, particularly his proposal to eliminate taxes on dividends and to reform Medicare, Mehlman exhorted members to start selling the package back in their states with appearances on television and radio, encouraged Republicans to pressure Congress to support the president.
"We need your help educating the public on President Bush's plans," Mehlman said.
Party officials made clear that they intend to move quickly and aggressively to build on the successes of 2002, when an unprecedented voter contact and turnout program helped the GOP expand its majority in the House and recapture control of the Senate.
Known as the "72 hour" project and coordinated in Washington through the state parties, the voter mobilization operation boosted turnout by approximately 3 percentage points, according to party officials. Had that occurred in 2000, officials said, Bush would have won Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin, giving him 20 additional electoral votes in his battle with Al Gore, they said.
The RNC accomplished that feat by putting a record number of volunteers -- estimated at 130,000 -- to work around the country, calling voters, walking door-to-door to distribute campaign literature and focusing on the final weekend of the election to encourage Republicans to vote.
Matthew Dowd, the RNC's polling director and strategist, said Republicans won 52 percent of the votes in 2002, the first time since 1994 that either party had broken 50 percent.
But Dowd said the GOP will need to expand its support among minorities and other groups where Democrats hold an advantage. He noted that if Bush were to win the same percentage of the vote among blacks, Hispanics and whites in 2004 as he did in 2000, he would lose the election because of the changing composition of the electorate.
RNC Chairman Marc Racicot, who was reelected yesterday to another term, said the committee will spend $1 million to register new voters. By the party's estimate, there are about 23 million potential Republican voters who are not registered. And based on registration gains last year, registering even a small percentage could return big dividends in 2004.
Party officials also said they will use the president's popularity and the successes of 2002 to begin to recruit candidates for House and Senate races in 2004 in hopes of expanding their majorities.