- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

NEW YORK — President Bush’s solid job-approval rating is likely to fall, and he will face as closely a contested election next year as he did in 2000, Bush-Cheney Campaign Manager Ken Mehlman warned yesterday.

“Our numbers look good today,” Mr. Mehlman told Republican National Committee members at the end of a four-day meeting in New York. Still, he said, this is no time for “complacency” about 2004.

“These numbers will come down,” Mr. Mehlman said. “We must prepare for an election every bit as close as the 2000 election.”

Overconfidence by Republican state party leaders, party activists and Mr. Bush’s core voters could turn out to be the biggest obstacle to his success and that of other Republican candidates in 2004, Mr. Mehlman warned state party chairmen and national committee members.

Later yesterday, RNC members repeated that warning in interviews and hallway discussions outside the Starlight Room, where Mr. Mehlman spoke at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

They said that the apparent disarray of the Democrats and their inability to coalesce behind a challenger for next year’s presidential campaign could lull Republicans into a false sense of confidence about winning the 2004 elections.

“Overconfidence on the part of our [Republican voter] base will be the biggest problem for Bush next year,” said Connecticut Republican Chairman Herbert J. Shepardson. “As the election draws close, the Democratic base will solidify.”

Mr. Mehlman’s speech closed out a meeting in which some concerns were expressed privately that Mr. Bush’s popularity has been hurt by the sluggish economy, increasing guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and questions about the administration’s use of shaky intelligence to justify the war to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Mehlman served as White House political director until being named by chief Bush political strategist Karl Rove to head the president’s 2004 re-election effort.

Addressing the RNC’s annual summer meeting, Mr. Mehlman said that the nation is still about as evenly divided between those who vote Republican and those who vote Democrat as it has been for the past three elections. He urged RNC members to intensify their drive to mobilize the Republican base.

“We need you on talk radio; we need your letters to the editor and your e-mails,” Mr. Mehlman said, adding that the Republican Party and the re-election campaign need to “re-energize our grass roots and identify as many potential Bush voters as possible.”

“We must sign up county chairmen and precinct leaders to recruit activists, to register voters and inspire volunteers,” he said.

Mr. Mehlman called for a Bush-Cheney and Republican Party booth to be set up at every county fair this summer.

He also said the Republican Party must meet former RNC Chairman Marc Racicot’s goal of registering 3 million new voters.

Many RNC members remarked privately that Mr. Mehlman sounded as if he were addressing a Rotary Club meeting rather than what was billed as an RNC “strategy session” that was open to the press.

The four-day meeting, which ended yesterday, was held this year in New York City, the site of next year’s Republican nominating convention.

But some RNC members acknowledged that more than just complacency by the Republican rank-and-file may be an obstacle to Mr. Bush’s re-election.

A recent CNN-Time poll said that 47 percent of voters trust Mr. Bush’s leadership, down 7 percentage points from March. A majority of voters say they have doubts about the president’s leadership.

“I worry that his falling approval [numbers] will get the press and the public talking about it in a way that makes it a self-fulfilling prophesy,” said Pat Brister, an RNC member from Louisiana. “So I hope his base will be there for him. All it takes [to lose] is a small erosion.”

Most RNC members said a continued loss of one or two American soldiers a day in Iraq could also become a major obstacle to Mr. Bush’s re-election unless he addresses the issue forthrightly, reminding Americans of the national security interests and humanitarian goals that are at stake.

Some RNC members agreed with Oklahoma national committee member Lyn Windell, who said a “big potential obstacle to re-election could be the failure to find Saddam Hussein, dead or alive” because it would keep Iraq in turmoil.

Mr. Mehlman yesterday defended the administration’s war on terrorism, criticizing the president’s Democratic critics.

“Some criticize this war on terror as unilateral or pre-emptive. But didn’t September 11 teach us that we cannot wait while threats gather? That we must connect the dots, even if other nations refuse to see the pattern? That pre-empting terrorists before they acquire weapons of mass destruction, before they come to our shores, before they can harm America, is the goal?” Mr. Mehlman said.

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