- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

The first of three excerpts from the book “Winning Right: Campaign Politics And Conservative Policies.”

I was despondent over the loss. “That first debate really killed us,” I said to Jim Dyke, the communications director at the Republican National Committee, and Tim Griffin, his deputy and the RNC’s research director. “We had him on the ropes, and we let him back in.”

It was a little before three in the afternoon on November 2, 2004, and we had been absorbing the 2:00 pm Election Day exit polls, which had Sen. John Kerry whipping President Bush in Pennsylvania and ahead in Florida and Ohio, all of which spelled doom. For nearly two years the three of us had worked nonstop to re-elect the president. Somehow, we had come up short.

“We blew Dean up too early,” Griffin said. As research director, he’d compiled a thick binder on Howard Dean the year before. When we, like so many others, assumed Dean would be the Democratic nominee, Tim had fed some of it to the media. He’d been second-guessing himself ever since Dean’s campaign collapsed in Iowa, since we all thought Dean would have been much easier to defeat than Kerry.

“Naw, he blew himself up,” I said.

“Yeah. We didn’t give that stupid scream speech,” Dyke said, laughing.

We were in a small dining room on the third floor of the Eisenhower Building, the big white building next to the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill. As Jim and I kicked around ideas for talking points, Griffin took a call on his cell phone. When he hung up, he said, “You might want to hold off on those talking points.” He’d been on with one of the networks, and-once again-the exit polls were screwed up. We were back in the game.

I went back to my office on the top floor of the RNC. It was my third stint in the building. I had been there in 1996 under then chairman Haley Barbour during the Clinton-Dole presidential year and the first election to defend the House majority after the ‘94 landslide.

As soon as I got back to my office I got a call from Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney campaign manager and one of my best friends.

“The numbers are screwed up,” he said. “The sample’s 60 percent women. They have us winning Catholics by ten and losing Wisconsin. That can’t be. There’s no way we’re down nineteen in Pennsylvania. We can’t be winning Hamilton County and losing Ohio.” Ken clicks off numbers in rapid-fire succession like that all the time. He has so much information in his head he can hardly get it out fast enough.

By the 6:00 pm exits, things had righted themselves. It was becoming clear that Bush could win as I headed to the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue where the official Election Night Watch Party was being held. As RNC chairman, I was the host and master of ceremonies.

I did a round of stand-ups for the eveningnews shows, showing confidence to make sure our voters on the West Coast didn’t pick up any sign of discouragement.

OnCNN,I crossed paths with myDemocratic counterpart and regular sparring partner Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe and I had become like the sheep dog and the coyote in the cartoons. We’d beat the hell out of each other when we were on the clock, but got along fine after we punched out.

Each of us predicted with confidence that our respective candidates had won the election. Immediately after we were off the air, Larry King turned to Wolf Blitzer and said, “One of these guys is wrong.”

By 3:00 am, Fox and NBC had called Ohio for Bush, but not Nevada, and ABC, CBS and CNN had called Nevada but not Ohio. With the history of 2000 and the recount fresh in their minds, none of thenetworks wanted to be the first to call them both and confer victory upon the president.

I was back and forth with presidential counselor Karl Rove all night as he sat with President Bush two blocks away in the White House. We talked about the possibility of the president coming over to address the crowd, much of which was still assembled, but decided it would be best to wait. Our numbers were piling up in Ohio, and while it wasn’t easy to be patient, it was pretty apparent we weren’t looking at another recount scenario.

I was dozing on a sofa in the hallway behind the stage area when Karl called around 4:30 am.

“Andy’s coming over,” he said, referring to White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. “He’ll tell ‘em [the crowd] that we expect to claim victory later today so everybody can go home and come back fresh.”

My wife, Cathy, and I got to the Willard Hotel a little after 6:00 am and asked for a 10:00 am wake-up call. Shortly after getting it, Ken called (see what I mean?) to say that the Kerry campaign had been in touch and that Kerry and Edwards would hold an event around lunchtime to concede.

Utter relief. Thank God, no recount. I didn’t think the country could stand another recount, and having been in the middle of the last one, I knew I couldn’t.

Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is founder and co-chairman of Quinn Gillespie & Associates.

Part II

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