- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS — Republican candidates can disagree with President Bush on the Iraq war and not face retaliation from the White House or the party’s national campaign committees, the chairman of the Republican National Committee said.

Republicans plan to campaign this fall on a disciplined message centered on the importance of the war on terror, but that overall strategy does not discourage candidates from taking an independent position on the war in Iraq, if it suits the candidate’s views and local election situation, Ken Mehlman said.

“The war on terror is the single most important issue America faces from a national perspective,” the former Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election campaign manager said after a speech Friday to state party chairmen and elected members of the RNC.

“The war in Iraq is a central front in that war, but each candidate makes a decision based on the local issues … and on his own position,” he said.

Dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war in Iraq could cost Republican candidates support among independents and some members of their own party. However, Mr. Bush’s approval ratings, particularly on leading the war on terror, remain high among Republican voters, the party’s polling shows.

Word is going out from the Republican top leadership that candidates would be wise to emphasize the party’s success in protecting the homeland from terrorism, and when possible link that with its determination to keep U.S. forces in Iraq so the country is not left to become a training ground for terrorists.

Senior Republican officials said privately that the strategy also includes making the immigration issue part of the war-on-terror message.

“A nation that cannot control its borders is a nation that cannot secure its homeland,” Mr. Mehlman told the RNC’s four-day annual summer meeting that ended here yesterday .

He acknowledged that this year’s midterm elections will severely test Republican message discipline and voter-turnout ingenuity but that a Democratic takeover of the House would be more difficult to achieve than polls suggest.

Republicans lag behind Democrats in national polls that sample voter intentions in the congressional elections.

A July 28-30 Gallup poll for USA Today showed Democrats leading Republicans — 51 percent to 40 percent — on a generic ballot question asking voters which party’s unnamed candidate they preferred for Congress.

In the last Gallup Poll before the 1994 election, Republicans had a 7 percentage point lead on the generic ballot question. Republicans then took control of Congress, netting 54 House and eight Senate seats, and gained 12 governors.

Since then, partisan redistricting has vastly expanded the number of safe seats for both parties. Still, this November, Democrats could recapture majority party status in Congress by netting 15 House and six Senate seats.

But the advantage for Republicans is that the party’s voters tend to be spread over more districts across the country, while Democrats tend to be concentrated in fewer districts, Mr. Mehlman said.

Identifying and getting out those last few Republican voters in competitive districts makes for a bigger payoff for the party, he argued.

So far, Mr. Bush’s name is hardly a drag on the Republican ticket for most candidates.

The president already has campaigned personally for more Republicans than in the entire 2002 nonpresidential year campaign-election cycle, Mr. Mehlman said. The requests for personal appearances by Mr. Bush from other Republican candidates outnumber the time slots available “on his dance card,” Mr. Mehlman said.

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