- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Sen. John McCain emerged from yesterday’s elections as one of Republicans’ only winners as Democrats made solid gains and both parties turn an eye toward 2008.

The Arizona Republican, who wasn’t up for re-election, rallied to the side of Republican candidates at 131 events — a strong showing that displayed his rising popularity. His strength was underscored Monday when Charlie Crist, Florida’s new Republican governor, chose to skip a scheduled rally with President Bush for an event with Mr. McCain.

“There’s going to be a batch of people who are going to personally owe McCain and there’s going to be another batch of people who are going to have to rethink their view of him,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist and pollster.

“He was a pretty solid party stalwart this go around, in a cycle when it was not easy to be a party stalwart.”

As both parties took stock of wins and losses last night, the soul-searching began for Republicans, while Democrats will now focus on capitalizing on their gains.

Foremost among those Democrats are rising star Sen. Barack Obama, the charismatic Illinois Democrat who recently said he no longer rules out running for president in 2008, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York Democrat who checked off an important box on her presidential to-do list by getting re-elected, amassing a substantial campaign fund and a solid springboard victory in the process.

But the prospects for both parties in Congress are more bleak with a lame-duck president and leaders of both parties staking out positions for the election in two years.

Neither party ran on a forward-looking agenda, with Republicans asking voters to stay the course on Iraq and the economy while Democrats proposed rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts and said they represented a vote of no confidence in the way the administration has prosecuted the war.

Without a mandate for either party, there is little to push Capitol Hill off the gridlock that has stalled further tax cuts, Social Security reform and other major initiatives.

And Democrats have their work cut out for them in 2008 defending House seats they won last night on solidly Republican ground. Four of those seats were the result of disgraced Republicans: Rep. Don Sherwood in Pennsylvania and former Reps. Mark Foley in Florida, Bob Ney in Ohio and Tom DeLay in Texas.

Still, Democrats’ wins in the House, giving them control for the first time since 1995, will alter the agenda on several thorny issues, including key gun legislation such as the assault weapons ban, which lapsed under Republican control but could come back under Democratic control.

Democrats have also promised to revisit and expand Mr. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program.

And a Democrat-controlled House removes the major obstacle to a broad immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. House Republicans had blocked action on such a proposal, calling it amnesty, but House Democrats can now team with a bipartisan majority in the Senate and with a willing president to pass a bill.

On the defensive side of the ledger, Democrats will be in a better position to block future free trade agreements.

The Republican search for answers will center on Mr. Bush, the leader of the party, whose string of election successes came to an end in dramatic fashion and with a strong rejection of his leadership. Mr. Bush has already scheduled a press conference for this afternoon.

According to a national exit poll, conducted for the Associated Press and the major broadcast networks, more than twice as many voters said they felt angry toward the president than felt enthusiastic, and more than a third of voters said their vote was in opposition to him.

“All of us Republicans are going to sit down together and listen to the voters, get the message from tonight, and we’re going to shape not a new agenda but a return to the principles and philosophy of what we stand for and believe in,” Mr. McCain said on Fox News last night.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the election provides a chance for Republicans to get back to principles: “I think it’s going to have a purifying effect,” he said.

For the Democrats’ part, they said they have already learned the lessons of the election.

“We won by turning the ‘red’ states of the heartland ‘blue,’ ” said Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat and himself a potential 2008 presidential candidate.

As the 2008 potential candidates sort out the playing field, Mr. McCain is looking solid.

His efforts over the last two years included raising more than $10 million for candidates and local parties, and donating almost $1.5 million directly.

Other Republicans also helped their cause, such as former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who campaigned for Republicans in many of the tight races.

Two men, meanwhile, suffered severe damage to their 2008 hopes — Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat whose self-admitted botched joke knocked Democrats off their message late in the campaign season, and Sen. George Allen, the Virginia Republican who was struggling last night to fend off a challenge by political neophyte Democrat James H. Webb Jr.

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