Archive for Friday, October 27, 2006

GOP aims to curb its losses

October 27, 2006


What a difference four years makes.

News that President Bush will make a campaign stop next week in former Rep. Tom DeLay's Houston-area district underscores the defensive strategy the White House has adopted in seeking to stem a potential Democratic tide in next month's elections.

In 2002, when Bush was riding high politically, he led the charge against Democratic incumbents and helped produce one of the best midterm showings for a recent president.

This year, the Republican rhetoric is as aggressive as ever, branding Democrats as big taxers who won't keep the country safe. But the bulk of the Bush campaign stops are in once-safe GOP districts where Democrats are now making strong bids for takeovers.

Texas' 22nd District, represented for 22 years by DeLay, is a case in point. Even former House Majority Leader Dick Armey conceded this week that former Rep. Nick Lampson, the Democratic candidate, is likely to defeat his write-in Republican rival, Houston council member Shelley Sekula-Gibbs.

The president has not scheduled a campaign stop for Van Taylor, the Republican challenger against the state's only remotely endangered Democratic incumbent, Rep. Chet Edwards, of Waco. And the national GOP has cut back its media spending there.

This strategy seems to reflect a decision to face political realities and concentrate on preventing a likely bad election from getting even worse. Not only is the president's political standing far less than it was, but few Democratic-held seats offer tempting Republican choices.

In fall 2002, Bush's job approval was in the mid-60s, and he had the Democrats on the defensive on two major issues: employee provisions in a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security and a request for congressional authorization of the possible use of force against Iraq.

About the same percentage of Americans who approved of his presidency also favored military action against Iraq, though some polls showed that the number dropped if potential complications were cited.

Now the tables have turned.

Most polls show the president's job approval in the mid-30s and reflect widespread disillusionment over the course of the war, something Bush acknowledged in his news conference Wednesday.

Last week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that two-thirds disapproved of the president's handling of Iraq; nearly as many felt Bush has not given good reasons why U.S. troops should stay there.

In addition, such respected GOP voices on national security as Sens. John Warner, of Virginia, and Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska, have called for a new course. Even general Bush loyalists such as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas, and embattled Sen. George Allen, of Virginia have turned more critical.

Hutchison said last week that she would not have voted for the war had she known no weapons of mass destruction existed. Allen said the administration must adjust its tactics because "mistakes have been made and progress has been far too slow."

Another factor for the Bush campaign strategy is that few Democratic-held seats seem at risk. The most recent Cook Political Report said Republicans hold 48 of the 55 seats considered toss-ups or leaning to one or the other party. It lists the DeLay and Edwards districts as leaning Democratic.

In response, top Republicans have escalated their rhetoric. "If leading Democrats have their way, our nation will be weaker and the enemies of our nation will be stronger," White House strategist Karl Rove said at a Republican dinner in Buffalo, N.Y.

And Bush, Rove and other GOP representatives are publicly maintaining that, despite the poll numbers, the GOP will keep both House and Senate. For example, at a recent forum, former Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., said the GOP still had an advantage because it had more incumbents and more money and would benefit from local issues.

Certainly, the fabled Republican turnout machine will play a last-minute role. But overall, the evidence suggests that Bush is wise to pursue a strategy designed less to win than to cut the losses top Republicans know are coming.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.


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