News Column

GOP Bets on Rove For Success in 2004

April 21, 2003

Richard Sammon

Karl Rove, the president's one-man political brain trust, is widely credited with President Bush's winning strategy in 2000 and in masterminding GOP gains in the 2002 midterm elections. Now he must do both again this time, simultaneously.

Rove's priority has to be his boss. Bush begins a long campaign in a good position, given high poll ratings, confidence in his handling of the war against terror and the afterglow of ousting Saddam Hussein from Iraq.

Bush's essential theme, to be repeated over and over and in many different ways, will be: "Don't switch horses midstream." It's not original, but it's especially timely for an uncertain world in the midst of a war against terror.

But reelection is far from a given. A lot can happen to change the mood between now and November 2004. Long-term chaos in Iraq forcing an extended U.S. military occupation could sap the good feelings that dominate today. And then there is the economy.

Democrats are hoping the slow, fitful recovery will be Bush's Achilles' heel that he can be portrayed as a president who pushes tax cuts for the rich while middle- and lower-income voters are left to suffer.

Rove's counter attack is based on what he sees as a win-win strategy for Bush. If the economy is recovering, Rove will have Bush take credit for it, citing his tax-cut packages as the proven prescription. If the economy is flat, the Bush campaign will blame it on Democrats for limiting the size of the tax cut and on the sluggish world economy for slowing U.S. growth.

Perception will also be key. Even if the economy is struggling next year, Bush will make it a point to show he is concerned and engaged, a lesson learned from Bush's father's campaign in 1992.

Rove has already drawn up his list of states important to Bush's reelection -- Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Michigan, Colorado and Florida -- and he is also holding regular meetings with GOP delegations from those states. Rove provides incomparable access and assistance in response to state needs. In return, Republican lawmakers will carry the White House gospel back home and help turn out the vote.

If Bush's popularity remains high, he will not only win reelection but also help with Rove's other preoccupation. Bush's coattails may make the difference for Republicans in the close races that will determine congressional control.

Rove's Eye on Congress. Rove has already essentially locked former Rep. John Thune (R-SD) to run against Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, considered a target if Bush remains very popular because South Dakota has been a GOP-trending state for several years.

Rove is also encouraging Rep. Richard Burr (R-NC) to run against Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), who may be vulnerable with home state voters because of Edwards' White House ambitions (Edwards could wind up running for both the White House and the Senate). Similarly, Rep. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is being tapped by Rove to run against Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC), who has a history of close election wins. Rove also is steering Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-NV) to run against Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, who barely won reelection in 1998.

To keep Congress under GOP control, Rove also must help Republicans facing tough reelections. He'll do so with White House support, presidential visits during the campaign, staff assistance and efforts to help steer money their way. In the Senate, Sen. Linda Murkowski (R-AK), appointed by her father, GOP Gov. Frank Murkowski, is expected to face a difficult election. Rove will also be involved in the Illinois Senate race, now wide open with the retirement announcement of Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R). Look for Rove to encourage former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar to step into the open seat race, which will be tight, given Illinois' Democratic leanings.

In the House, Rove will be helping, among others, Anne Northup (R-KY), who has squeaked to victory in her last two elections in a politically mixed district. Also on the help list will be Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ), who got 49 percent of the vote last time and Rep. John Hostettler (R-IN), who just won in 2002 in a redrawn district adding more Democratic voters.

Researcher-Reporter: Gerry Moore

Source: © 2003 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.

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