- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

President Bush is expected to offer personal thanks and encouragement to worried Republican National Committee members when they open their two-day annual winter meeting this week in Washington.

Tasked with ensuring victory for Mr. Bush last year and for Republican candidates next year, party officials say they are confident looking toward the 2006 midterm elections — provided federal spending is not out of control.

“The sixth year of a two-term presidency is the toughest year for the party in power,” said Robert T. Bennett, Ohio Republican Party chairman. If Congress can’t get a budget passed “and hold down spending, I think we will be in trouble, but it has more to do with Congress than anything else.”

Mr. Bush and his fellow Republicans overcame the odds in 2002: the party that wins the White House usually suffers — two years later — a net loss in Congress and in governorships. But by nationalizing the midterm elections, using homeland security as a theme and sending Mr. Bush out to stump for his party’s candidates, Republicans regained control of the Senate and held on to its House majority.

The party suffered a less-than-predicted net loss of two governorships, but still held more than half of them.

In 2006, Mr. Bennett said 36 states will be electing governors — 16 of them with Republican incumbents and another six with Republicans leaving office.

Party leaders aren’t forecasting doom in the gubernatorial contests or for the Senate next year, when a third of that chamber will be up for election. But they aren’t taking anything for granted, either.

“In the Senate, all of our seats will be vulnerable if it’s bad economic times,” Mr. Bennett said.

To successfully nationalize the 2006 midterms, Mr. Bush may have to bring the public along on a number of issues.

State Republican Party chairmen and other RNC members meeting here generally agree that federal spending, the budget deficit, Iraq — and, in some key states, immigration — will be important.

Some officials who insist the war will not be a problem for their party in the midterm elections blame the press’ concern with civilian casualities for what they see as negative reporting on the war in Iraq.

The latest Gallup poll of Americans has Mr. Bush with a 52 percent overall job-approval rating, 50 percent on the economy and 58 percent on fighting terrorism.

But his approval-disapproval ratios on some other issues could spell trouble if they rise in importance next year: 32 percent to 63 percent on the budget deficit, 42 percent to 56 percent on Iraq, 41 percent to 52 percent on Social Security.

“People are focusing more on immigration than they ever have, because of so much fraudulent voting in the elections last year,” said RNC member Mary Buestrin, co-chairman of the 2004 Bush campaign grass-roots operation in Wisconsin. “We saw a lot of that in my state.”

Offsetting those potential problems is the commitment of the White House political team to improve Mr. Bush’s party’s electoral prospects, Republicans say.

Mr. Bush has asked the 165-member RNC to make Ken Mehlman the party’s national chairman. Mr. Mehlman served as Mr. Bush’s first White House political director until Mr. Bush’s chief political strategist named him as the national Bush-Cheney ‘04 campaign manager.

“Mehlman was the CEO of the organization that used a lot of innovative techniques for voter targeting, registration and grass-roots turnout that clearly beat the Democrats at turnout in 2004,” said New Jersey RNC member David Norcross, who oversaw the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.

One task facing Mr. Mehlman and the RNC is reform of the presidential-primary system, which is rapidly turning into a national primary day, Mr. Norcross said.

The RNC tried to address such reform in the past but failed, in part because of strong objections by Iowa, which holds the first caucuses, and New Hampshire, which holds the first primary.

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