- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

At a fund-raiser two months before the midterm elections, President Bush was reminded by an acquaintance of the propensity of Republican leaders to mess up just when things appeared to be going their way.
"I won't mess this up," the president whispered in reply, "because I know exactly what I'm doing."
Yesterday, after the Republican Party hit the jackpot with voters retaking the Senate, increasing its House majority and winning governorships in traditionally Democratic states like Maryland and Hawaii Democrats and Republicans agreed that the president had done much better than not messing up.
Mr. Bush felt confident enough to take political risks because he and his chief strategist, Karl Rove, knew exactly what needed doing and then did it.
"The White House Rove and Bush and whoever else on their political team made a calculation that they were going to spend the president's considerable political popularity and capital by having him go into the field for their candidates," said spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri, who was sitting with her boss, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "They went about it with guts, they took a risk and it paid off. Good for them."
Analysts in both parties used the jackpot metaphor. It was appropriate, they said, because Mr. Bush had gambled his personal- and job-approval ratings on a blatantly partisan pursuit.
Those ratings were high in part because of the perception of firm leadership against foreign threats like Iraq and al Qaeda and in part because of the bipartisan tone he had maintained until embarking on his nonstop stumping for Republican candidates some of whom he personally had persuaded to run.
"We had a president willing to invest himself in getting people fired up to do the grass-roots work," said Jack Oliver, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee.
How important was Mr. Bush's role to the people on the ground charged with electing Republicans?
"What showed up in our polling over and over was when we asked people what they had heard or seen about Saxby Chambliss, the response was: 'He's the one Bush endorsed,'" said Bo Harmon, campaign manager for the Republican congressman's upset victory over Georgia Democratic Sen. Max Cleland.
Mr. Bush, who had a 70 percent approval rating in Georgia, made five appearances in the state.
"On the Saturday before the election, Bush was here for us and told volunteers they should knock on doors, man the phone banks and do the ground-war stuff that Karl Rove has been preaching," Mr. Harmon said. "And when you've got 15,000 fired-up Republicans in a room who say, 'Yes, Mr. President, I'll go and do that,' it makes a big difference."
Campaign operatives in other contests agreed that Republicans, instead of suffering the expected midterm massacre of their own ranks in Congress, pulled off their defeat of Democrats on Tuesday because of the Bush-Rove strategy.
That strategy had begun taking shape even before Mr. Bush was sworn in as president in January 2001. An important element was recruiting candidates who were, as one of the strategy's authors put it, "right for their congressional district or state," such as Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina and Norm Coleman in Minnesota, and who could mount effective campaigns.
Next, the president made sure that Republican issues such as tax cuts, homeland defense and Iraq remained front and center with the public and press throughout the campaign, preventing the Democrats' issues such as rising unemployment, corporate corruption and a prescription-drug benefit for seniors from gaining traction.
Rove deputy Ken Mehlman, the White House political director, argued that Democrats were unable to prevail, even on the economy, because more voters believed Republicans were better able to handle the issues.
"Our weekend national polling showed voters gave us an eight-percentage-point edge in handling the economy," Mr. Mehlman said. "We did raise economic issues. A lot of pundits didn't understand that, but voters did."
A third element in the Republican victory was forcing Democratic leaders to back down when they attempted to challenge Mr. Bush and the Republicans on homeland security and Iraq.
The fourth element, which Mr. Mehlman and Mr. Oliver separately characterized as "absolutely crucial," was a plan to maximize turnout of the Republican voter base by having in place the "troops" volunteers and paid workers to conduct the kind of "ground war" campaigning that the Democrats historically used so effectively against Republicans.
Early postelection evidence suggested that Republicans this time were more effective in getting out the vote, thanks to the Rove-Mehlman-Oliver concept of a "72 hour task force" and a Democratic voter base de-energized by a failure of congressional Democratic leaders to push core liberal issues.
As early as December 2000, Mr. Rove had made the case for a back-to-basics "ground-war" campaign model in contrast with an "air war," where TV campaign ads would compete with the clutter of opposition ads.
Georgia Republican Sonny Perdue's upset victory over Gov. Roy Barnes illustrated the success of the Rove model. Mr. Perdue's campaign lacked the funding to fight the Democrat incumbent's "air war," but he had enough volunteers on the ground to compete. Mr. Bush's personal appearances on the Republican's behalf pushed Mr. Perdue over the top, Mr. Harmon said.

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