- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

White House political adviser Karl Rove and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez met last week to discuss challenging Florida Sen. Bob Graham in the 2004 election.
Whether Mr. Martinez could beat the popular former governor and three-term senator remains doubtful, but that may not be the chief reason Mr. Rove wants the HUD secretary on the Florida ballot.
What this really boils down to are three things: the state's huge Hispanic vote, Mr. Graham's refusal to break with the Democrats' filibuster against Miguel Estrada's nomination to the D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and improving President Bush's chances of carrying a pivotal state he barely won in 2000.
Mounting evidence shows a Bush-guided GOP is making inroads into the Hispanic vote, especially in Florida. Republicans won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally last November and President Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, won 40 percent of that vote in his state. Cuban-born Mr. Martinez would be expected to do even better than that.
Despite Florida's reputation as one of the nation's most Republican-leaning states, it remains a wild card in presidential politics. But the Democrats' opposition to Mr. Estrada, a Honduran immigrant who has become a Latino success story, could put the state firmly into George Bush's column.
The longer the Democrats block a majority vote on Mr. Estrada (he has at least 55 votes for confirmation), the angrier Hispanics and Latinos become. Mr. Rove knows that anger could mean votes for Mr. Martinez and for Mr. Bush.
Administration sources tell me Mr. Rove has promised Mr. Martinez the full support of the White House, including presidential fund-raising and campaign appearances.
The White House says it has clamped down on presidential politics while the country faces a war with Iraq. However, Mr. Rove is already working behind the scenes on next year's elections, recruiting Senate candidates in key states and preparing for Mr. Bush's campaign.
In an exclusive interview in his West Wing office, the president's chief campaign strategist refused to talk about what he is doing, but makes it clear presidential politics is never far from his mind.
Whomever wins the Democratic presidential nomination is going to pose a serious challenge to Mr. Bush's re-election bid, he says. "I think at the end of the day, whoever emerges from the Democratic process of selecting a candidate for president will be strong."
"Nine times out of 10 the process of selecting the presidential candidate strengthens the eventual nominee, not weakens him," he says. In other words, for every George McGovern, there are many more Jimmy Carters and Bill Clintons.
It is a lesson Mr. Rove remembers very well, as does Mr. Bush, whose father was trounced by Mr. Clinton in 1992.
Yes, most of the presidential field is made up of liberal, Northeast candidates who are outside of the political mainstream, but Mr. Rove doesn't underestimate any of them. That is because winning the presidential nomination can turn a weakling into a muscular candidate. Add that to the harm a slumping economy is doing to Mr. Bush's popularity and the president could be in trouble.
Need proof? How about Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale?
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was a disastrous, left-wing Democrat who gave weekend furloughs to imprisoned criminals and went down to defeat.
But when Mr. Dukakis won the nomination in 1988, polls showed him in a dead heat with Mr. Bush's father.
Walter Mondale, who lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan, was within striking distance of winning in the spring of 1984.
Mr. Rove believes that the country is shifting in favor of the Republicans. "For me, the most incredible number is the number of state legislative races we won last year. We should have lost an average of 350 seats that the White House parties have suffered in the first off-year elections. Instead we gained 195 seats."
This is the first time the GOP has had a majority of the state legislative seats since 1954, and the largest number since 1928.
Winning the Senate and picking up House seats were important, but this can be "explained away" by good recruitment, the president's fund-raising and a strong national message.
"Something more substantial is going on in these state races," Mr. Rove says. "It's very hard to affect the outcome of those [races] on a national scale. To have this kind of result almost across the board, it's a pretty remarkable thing."
Mr. Rove resists any predictions this trend will continue, but he thinks there is a big reform movement going on in American politics. The once-solid black Democratic vote is becoming more diverse. Hispanics are voting for Republicans in larger numbers from New York to Texas. The "ownership class" feels threatened by the Democrats' zeal for taxation.
Many other factors are at work here, but he thinks Mr. Bush is helping to make the Republican Party more inclusive and more palatable for people to vote for. "Only time will tell how permanent, how durable and how big this is."

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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