Thursday, September 23, 2004

President Bush expects to help Republicans gain up to four Senate seats and seven House seats in November and already is running Sen. John Kerry out of states that had been considered battlegrounds, White House political strategist Karl Rove said yesterday.

In a 90-minute luncheon interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, Mr. Rove said the president is making significant inroads into “blue” states, or those that voted Democratic in 2000, and solidifying his position in the “red” states, which he carried four years ago.

He said the number of true battleground states, which he called “purple,” is rapidly shrinking in the Bush-Kerry contest.

“There’s a lot more blue territory that’s been trending purple and red, and a lot less red that’s been getting any tinge of blue in it, and that’s good for us,” he said. “We’re forcing the battle consistently onto their” turf.

Mr. Rove said gains in the Senate, where Republicans already hold a 51-48 advantage, dramatically would improve the chances for the approval of the president’s judicial nominees, many of whom Democrats have blocked.

“We’re going to get Republican gains in the Senate,” he said over lunch at the Hay Adams Hotel across the street from the White House. “And even a gain of a couple of seats is going to work a sea change on their ability to obstruct these judges.”

The man credited with engineering Mr. Bush’s victorious 2000 campaign bragged of chasing Mr. Kerry out of a half-dozen states that were considered battlegrounds earlier in this year’s contest. He said the list soon would grow to include Ohio, which is widely considered the most crucial state in the election.

“I’m convinced that we are on the verge of seeing West Virginia and Ohio sort of move out of contention,” a relaxed and confident Mr. Rove said between bites of his Caesar salad.

He recalled Democrats announcing “with a great flourish” their plans to expand the battle to states such as Louisiana, only to pull out after millions in advertising expenditures failed to produce gains in the polls.

“A lot of states that were expected to be in close contention are floating out of contention: North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri; maybe Colorado, Arizona,” he said.

“I mean, some of them are gone; North Carolina is gone,” he said of the home state of Mr. Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards. “Arkansas is gone. If it’s not gone, it will be gone on November 2nd.”

In fact, yesterday, the Kerry team canceled plans to begin a $5 million TV commercial campaign in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri.

Campaign officials told the Associated Press that advisers concluded Mr. Kerry isn’t doing well enough in those states to justify the cost. The campaign notified television stations in the four states that Mr. Kerry would not follow through on his plans for the first week of October.

Mr. Rove said of the remaining 13 battleground states, the Kerry campaign is “worried about” protecting the nine states that Vice President Al Gore won in 2000: Maine, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

That leaves Mr. Bush to protect four states he won in 2000: Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Mr. Rove said a dearth of polling in Florida, caused by the recent rash of hurricanes, makes it difficult to gauge the president’s strength in the state that put him over the top in 2000.

But Mr. Rove said he feels “very good” about New Hampshire and Nevada. He said he feels “fantastic” about Ohio, which Mr. Bush carried by fewer than four percentage points in 2000.

Mr. Rove acknowledged that the Bush campaign “underperformed” in roughly half of Ohio four years ago, especially in the southwestern quadrant, where “we came up short in terms of what we needed in raw numbers and percentages.”

But he insisted that the campaign there is now “strong as an acre of garlic.”

He added that although Mr. Kerry would have to win Ohio in order to become president, Mr. Bush could find another way to electoral victory.

“They can never say that Ohio moves out of contention, because they can’t win unless they break into Ohio,” he said. “We’ve got New Mexico, Iowa and Wisconsin, where the polls are showing us ahead, and that equals Ohio.”

Mr. Rove said, “We are intrigued” by polls showing the president gaining on Mr. Kerry in reliably Democratic states such as New Jersey. But he stopped short of pledging to pour major resources into New Jersey.

“We’re looking at it,” he said. “There will be some surprises. Last time around, West Virginia was a surprise. There’ll be a couple of other surprises this election.”

Turning to the upcoming presidential debates, which begin Thursday, Mr. Rove tried to raise expectations for Mr. Kerry’s performance.

He said a fiery speech by Mr. Kerry on Monday, followed by combative rhetoric on the campaign trail on Tuesday and yesterday, suggests Mr. Kerry will “go on the offensive” next week.

“He will be the best debater the president’s ever faced,” Mr. Rove said. “We underestimate Kerry at our peril. He’s very good at this; he thinks about it; he’s an aggressor; he goes in there flailing.”

Mr. Rove pointed to Mr. Kerry’s debates against former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who made an unsuccessful bid for Mr. Kerry’s Senate seat in 1996.

“Go get the tape of the eight debates with Weld,” he said. “I like Weld a lot. He has a very sharp mind — quick on his feet, nimble. And Kerry just undresses him eight times in a row.”

Mr. Rove, who interrupted the interview for a few moments to take a call from Mr. Bush, pointed out that Mr. Kerry helped form an organization in high school so that he could indulge his passion for debating, which has endured for decades.

“He’s been a senator for 19 years, and it’s the one place he does shine,” Mr. Rove said. “He doesn’t shine in committee work, doesn’t shine in legislative work. But he will rise to the floor in defense of whatever odd left-wing cause he’s in favor of that week and make a pretty solid argument.”

Mr. Rove, who closely monitored debate negotiations between the Bush and Kerry camps, suggested that Mr. Kerry was not “eager to have the first debate focus on foreign policy.”

He added: “If the question is the war on terror, George W. Bush wins going away.”

Mr. Rove expressed confidence that “Bush hatred” among Democrats would not be enough to propel Mr. Kerry into the White House.

“Their problem is not getting Kerry’s people to dislike Bush; it’s getting them to like Kerry,” he said of the Democratic campaign. “Hatred is a powerful emotion, but it’s not a very durable emotion. You cannot maintain hatred in your heart for another person and keep it for a long period of time.”

He pointed out that even liberal filmmaker Michael Moore ridiculed Mr. Kerry’s candidacy in “rantings on his Web page” this week.

“I mean, here’s a guy who’s about as big a Bush hater as one could be — and I mean more than just physically — and even he is disparaging of Kerry,” Mr. Rove said. “At the end of the day, that hurts. You’ve got to motivate your people to come out for more than just a dislike of the other guy.”

Mr. Rove said he thinks the president is five to six percentage points ahead of Mr. Kerry nationally, although the Bush campaign is not conducting national polls. However, Mr. Rove said, “We have an army of pollsters” doing extensive sampling in battleground states.

“We’ve taken all the battleground states and molded them together so that we’re doing 600 sample a night or 800 sample a night in every battleground state and then aggregating all of those,” he said.

“So we’re talking about literally interviews in the thousands every night,” he said. “And you run three nights of those, and you’re talking tens of thousands of interviews.”

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