- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

President Bush's record-high job-approval rating and virtual nonstop campaigning for his party's candidates in close races are expected to help Republicans beat the historic odds in Tuesday's congressional elections.
Though voters usually go against the party holding the White House in midterm elections and punish the president's party for a slow economy polls suggest the Republicans will escape relatively unscathed when Americans go to the polls Tuesday.
Both parties are asking whether the reason is:
Mr. Bush's focus on Iraq and terrorism and his ability to manage the issues agenda.
The failure of Democrats to stand up for their beliefs and seize control of the agenda.
That voters' trust in Mr. Bush on defense issues has given him an advantage on domestic issues as well.
Every major poll indicates that Mr. Bush's emphasis on Iraq and terrorism chiefly account for his popularity, even as polls show these two issues continuing to vie with the economy and jobs as the top concerns of an electorate that is evenly divided over which party is best able to handle the economy.
Some Democrats say the failure of their congressional leaders to stand up for their own anti-war convictions the way Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone did before his death last week has helped Mr. Bush and his party keep traditional Democratic domestic issues from gaining more traction with voters.
"There is a certain amount of truth to that," said Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Ron Oliver. "The economy did not become the major issue in the elections as many of us thought it would."
"I believe the Wellstone example teaches us is that standing up to Bush on Iraq is better politics as well as policy," confided a leading Democratic campaign strategist with close ties to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "Wellstone moved up like a rocket in the polls during the three weeks he was opposing Bush on Iraq."
After leading fellow Democrats in opposing Mr. Bush on Iraq, first Mr. Gephardt and then Mr. Daschle agreed to a resolution in early October granting the president the authority to use force against Iraq.
"Had Gephardt and Daschle held their ground, it would have shown Democrats to be 'conviction politicians,'" the Democratic strategist said. "Whether they agree with them or not, people respect politicians like John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who stand up for principles. And doing so would have excited the Democrat base. I blame Gephardt, who pulled the rug from under Daschle by cutting a separate deal with the White House and moderate Democrats in Congress."
Republicans agree.
"Historically, Bush ought to be having his head handed to him," a Republican who has managed several presidential campaigns said privately. "It's the second year after his election and the economy is [bad]. But war with Iraq has dominated the campaign."
American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene said congressional Democrats committed a tactical mistake.
"In order to get past it and onto the domestic issues where Democrats do best, they had to wrestle Bush to ground on Iraq. But they caved instead," Mr. Keene said.
Democratic campaign consultant Mark Mellman says one reason Republicans will suffer few midterm losses is that there are far fewer competitive House races thanks to redistricting that made most seats safe for one party or the other.
Also, there has been a "fundamental transformation in Republican strategy. They used to say let's get rid of the Education Department because we don't believe in a federal role in education," Mr. Mellman said.
"But to Bush's credit, he has revised the Republican approach to say, if you're for education, I am, too. Prescription drugs? Me, too. So Republicans now embrace the goals but not necessarily the means to achieve them," he said.
Five days before the elections, Mr. Bush's job approval stands at an unprecedented 64 percent in a John Zogby poll of 1,006 likely voters released yesterday.
Even in what analysts described as a worst-case scenario for Republicans a net loss of two Senate seats and one or two House seats the party will do better than might have been expected based on previous midterm elections.
From World War II until 1994 (when Republicans swept both houses of Congress), the party that had won the White House two years earlier lost an average of 14 House seats in the midterm elections.

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