- The Washington Times - Monday, October 28, 2002

The White House is bracing for Republican gubernatorial losses in next week's elections, but is "cautiously optimistic" about defying historical trends by holding its own in the House and Senate.
One reason for that optimism is President Bush's job-approval rating being at 67 percent, higher than any other modern president's at this point in his first term, according to Gallup, which began taking such polls in 1938.
Still, the administration acknowledged, that probably won't be enough to stave off Democratic gains in gubernatorial elections which could hurt Republican grass-roots political efforts in key states in 2004.
"Look, we're going to lose some governors," said a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "If you had to bet a net loss."
But White House Political Director Ken Mehlman told The Washington Times that he is "cautiously optimisticfl" about Republicans retaining control of the House. And he said Republicans have a "historic opportunity" to retake control of the Senate.
Mr. Mehlman sounded more hopeful than White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who pointed out that a first-term president's party usually suffers "massive setbacks" in the midterm elections.
"That's a historical trend that has seldom been violated," Mr. Fleischer said. "History suggests that the incumbent party would have major losses."
One White House official said Mr. Fleischer was not lowering expectations in order to mitigate political fallout if the Republicans take a shellacking next week.
"What Ari said is historically true," the official said. But he added: "The normal trends that are often under way in an off year aren't, at this point, as much under way."
For example, Mr. Bush's 67 percent job-approval rating is significantly higher than the historical average of 50 percent for this point in a president's first term. Presidents Reagan and Clinton, whose parties suffered major losses in comparable midterm elections, had job approval ratings of 42 percent and 48 percent, respectively, at that point in their presidencies.
Furthermore, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton campaigned on behalf of their parties by urging voters to essentially "stay the course." Mr. Bush, by contrast, has been urging voters to effect change by wresting Senate control away from Democrats, who have blocked major components of his agenda.
"Here's another difference: The last president went around the country trash-talking the [opposition] candidates," the White House official said. "This president doesn't do that. This president says: 'Here's what this person's for,' not: 'This is who I'm against.' Big difference."
In addition, Democrats have had difficulty shifting the public's attention away from war with Iraq and the Washington-area sniper and onto the faltering economy. By contrast, Democrats in 1982 made the repeal of Mr. Reagan's tax cuts a major campaign issue. And Republicans in 1994 united around the "Contract for America."
"What's also unique is that the opposition this year is not running against George W. Bush," the White House official said. "In fact, to the contrary, you've got Democrats all over the country who are using the president's likeness in their advertising, trying to say, 'I'm a Bush person, too,' even in cases where they're not."
These anomalies have given administration officials a quiet confidence that they will retain control of the House and have a 50-50 chance of retaking the Senate. That would be a dramatic departure from the track record of such elections, which typically result in the president's party losing dozens of House seats and three to four Senate seats.
"We're going into this as a very uphill battle," Mr. Mehlman said. "If we are able to either keep the House or win back the Senate, either would be a huge historic accomplishment for the president."
The stakes are enormous and include the president's ability to appoint conservative judges who will shape the federal judiciary for decades. Control of the Senate also might allow Mr. Bush to make his tax cuts permanent, pass an energy bill and strengthen his chances of re-election in 2004.
Although White House officials are sensitive to the charge that they are using the war against terrorism for domestic political gain, they acknowledge that the president's prosecution of the war has expanded his political base.
Just as Mr. Reagan enlisted "Reagan Democrats" and Mr. Clinton won over Republican "soccer moms," Mr. Bush could benefit from a new breed of swing voters post-terror patriots.
"There are people who previously didn't support him who are now taking a second look because of the kind of leadership he's shown," Mr. Mehlman said. "People support a president based on their handling of their jobs their jobs on foreign policy, their jobs on defense policy, their jobs on economic policy."

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