- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2001

BOSTON — Republican leaders say President Bush's personal appeal to voters is turning out to be their greatest asset as they prepare for next year's elections.
Gathered here for their first national meeting since Mr. Bush was sworn in, party leaders from 50 states are pleased with his policy agenda, particularly the tax cuts already enacted and the reforms of education, health care and Social Security now being considered in Congress.
At the same time, these Republican National Committee members — state party chairmen and elected national committeemen — are nervous about the political impact of such issues as stem-cell research and an amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants.
Many members say the administration's amnesty proposal for illegal immigrants, seen as another effort to cultivate Hispanics, has the potential for backfiring.
"It is a tough call, and yes, we will lose some of our base on this issue," Arizona RNC member Michael T. Hellon said. "On the other hand, the party needs to show a kinder and gentler face and show we care for some of the hardest-working people in this economy who don't enjoy all its benefits."
Although these state Republican leaders say they enjoy good access to the Bush White House, a few worry that Team Bush's concentration on the 2004 presidential re-election campaign comes at the expense of getting ready for the 2002 midterm elections.
"We're pushing the president's agenda, as we should, but I'm afraid we may be overkilling it at the expense of the state parties' need to concentrate on 2002," said Ohio party Chairman Robert T. Bennett.
"You know, if I'm spending all my time supporting the president, and having conference calls and getting talking points out, that's taking away from planning and organizing the agenda for 2002," Mr. Bennett said. "The most important thing for President Bush in 2004 is the 2002 elections — making sure that he has Republican leaders elected in the states to help him. That's what won him the election last year."
Mr. Bennett said the "RNC's role always changes when you have the presidency, because you become the political-support arm of the White House, and rightly so. But at the same time, you have to do all those things that are necessary to make sure your elected Republican governors and other elected officials get support."
Mr. Bush's popularity, reflected in high personal and job-approval ratings in polls, is what RNC members repeatedly cited as their trump card in helping deepen Republican roots in their states.
"The best thing the White House could do is bring the president himself — or the vice president — to the Northeast as much as possible, to counteract the Democratic propaganda machine," said Connecticut party Chairman Chris DePino.
"We need the president here to tell people the Republican Party is not going to take away their Social Security and Medicare payments and that when it comes to long-term energy policy, you have a friend with us," Mr. DePino added.
Both Mr. Bush and the Republican Party also need to beware of the spending issue, party officials said.
Mr. Hellon said that when the Republicans controlled the Senate and the House, they spent "like Democrats and grass-roots Republican voters were saying, 'Our guys are just as bad as their guys.'"
"Now we have a president who initiated and signed a tax cut, and a Republicans in Congress who are out to make those cuts permanent, which enforces spending discipline on both parties.
"The message of permanent tax cuts is, you guys in Washington go spend what you want to spend, but you only get this much of it and no more, and that is selling very well to our electoral base," Mr. Hellon said.
"I really hate to say this, but we had a Congress that really got out of control on spending, particularly when it comes to pork," Mr. Bennett said. "Until this year, a lot of it was pushed by a Democrat president, and I understand that, but we're going to be held accountable for it by the American voters."
Louisiana state Chairman Patricia P. Brister said, "The easiest thing on the Bush agenda to sell in my state is his education initiative, because we have a poor record in our state on education."
Hawaii RNC member Miriam Hellreich said that in her state, too, education is the most popular Bush initiative, because Hawaii ranks second in the nation in people who send their children to private schools.
"The toughest thing we've had to deal with is the way the environmental issue has been handled," Miss Hellreich said. "It's not the president's policy that's the problem — they just didn't do as good a job in getting it out of the box as they could have, so we had to go back and explain a lot of it."
She said education, the economy and the environment are very important to Hawaiians "and if Bush can come through as being a champion of those things, he's got a great shot at winning what is known now as a very Democrat state."
Mrs. Brister said "the White House opposition to campaign-finance regulation is one of the more difficult to sell in Louisiana, but only because it's hard to explain to people."

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