- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

Whoever wins the Democratic presidential nomination will pose a serious challenge to President Bush's re-election bid in 2004, White House political adviser Karl Rove says.
"I think at the end of the day whoever emerges from the Democratic process of selecting a candidate for president will be strong," said Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush's chief campaign strategist. "Nine times out of 10, the process of selecting the presidential candidate strengthens the eventual nominee, not weakens him."
The Washington Times reported Monday that the White House was repressing any talk of the 2004 presidential election until after a resolution of the military showdown with Iraq. But Mr. Rove's remarks in an interview Tuesday indicate that presidential politics is never far from his mind.
Mr. Rove also said that Republicans were making significant inroads into the Democratic Party's black and Hispanic voter base and in state legislatures, the training ground of candidates for higher office.
He said the White House was not offended by criticism from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota over Mr. Bush's handling of the Iraq crisis and did not believe that they were playing politics with national security.
"Look, people can have an honest disagreement on this. They disagree with the president's policy, but I would suspect that it is not out of politics, that it is out of conviction, and you've got to respect somebody's convictions," he said.
Although the White House says it is avoiding presidential politics for now, others suggest that Mr. Rove is spending much of his time plotting strategy and recruiting candidates for the 2004 elections.
Mr. Rove met privately yesterday for lunch with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez to discuss a campaign against Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, who was seeking his party's presidential nomination.
Florida was the pivotal state that led to Mr. Bush's election in 2000 after the U.S. Supreme Court settled a bitter ballot count dispute.
The state's large Hispanic vote will be critical in the 2004 elections, and Mr. Bush's supporters in Florida want a strong Hispanic Republican candidate on the statewide ballot. The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote last year in his successful re-election bid for a second term.
Mr. Rove refused to discuss whom he was recruiting for key Senate and gubernatorial races, but a national party official said the White House was "talking to a number of potential candidates."
The president's close, longtime adviser rarely submits to interviews. The White House strategy is to maintain a low political profile in the midst of the looming war.
When Mr. Rove does engage in interviews, he usually prefers to speak off the record to keep his identity a secret.
He declined to elaborate about the field of nine mostly liberal Democratic presidential candidates. But other White House advisers and Republican Party officials agreed yesterday that the primary-election process would strengthen the Democratic Party's candidate.
"We forget that after he won the Democratic nomination, Governor Michael Dukakis was in a dead heat in the polls with Vice President Bush in 1988," said a presidential aide. "In retrospect, he was seen as a weak opponent, but at that time he appeared formidable."
Mr. Rove said Hispanic and black voters are identifying less with Democrats and are more open to the Republican Party because of Mr. Bush's outreach.
"There is this sense that the policies under him are more inclusive and open," Mr. Rove said.
Looking back on the 2002 elections, Mr. Rove said that "something very significant happened" at the local levels that could signal long-term political growth for the Republican Party.
Besides winning Republican control of the Senate and strengthening the party's hold on the House, "for me the most incredible number is the number of state legislative races we won," he said.
"If the state legislative races followed history for the party in the White House, we should have lost an average of 350 seats. Instead, we gained 195 seats. So we were 545 seats above where we ought to be," he said.
"That's a lot when you are talking about roughly 7,000 legislative seats. It's the first time we've had a majority since 1954 and the largest number we've had, I think, since 1928," Mr. Rove said.
"It's indicative of something more substantial going on down there at the bottom of American politics in these state legislative races," he said.
Mr. Rove said only time will tell "how permanent and how durable and how big this is, but I think the president is helping to make the Republican Party more palatable for people to vote for."

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