WASHINGTON - On the eve of George W. Bush's second term, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee challenged his party to convert the president's re-election effort into a permanent campaign to promote Bush's agenda, defy history in the 2006 elections and forge a lasting majority to keep the White House in Republican hands well into the next decade.
"The party-building for the 2008 election must begin today," Ken Mehlman, who served as manager of the Bush re-election drive, told an RNC luncheon here yesterday. Earlier, the RNC ratified the White House decision to put Mehlman, a 38-year- old Pikesville native, in charge of the national party organization.
As Bush pointed out Tuesday in a closed-door session with RNC members, the race to succeed him is more wide open than in any of the past 40 years. Party insiders took Bush's comment as a fresh indication that Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a history of heart trouble, has ruled out seeking the nomination.
A large number of Republican politicians have been mentioned as possible Bush successors. The list includes Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and George E. Pataki of New York and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
One senior RNC member, speaking privately, said the potential contender whose name was being "whispered" most often by party leaders at this week's winter meeting, timed to coincide with the Bush inauguration, is the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. The younger Bush has said he has no interest in running.
The president and his chief strategist, Karl Rove, are attempting to keep the party focused on elections over the next two years, before the 2008 contest begins in earnest and Bush increasingly is seen as a lame duck. At the same time, they have signaled an intention to press their advantage in voter turnout and grassroots mobilization, among the keys to Bush's re-election triumph in November over Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
Mehlman, in luncheon remarks and in the appointment of new party committees to oversee voter registration, Election Day activities and the use of new technology, highlighted the Bush-Rove strategy to increase the party's support among conservatives, regular churchgoers, Hispanics and African-Americans.
Mehlman said the party needs to "institutionalize our grass-roots efforts from 2004," when an expensive, high-tech Republican turnout operation added 10 million votes to Bush's 2000 total.
"Republicans must acquire and maintain a technological advantage in the tactics of politics," said Mehlman, widely praised for his effective execution of Rove's campaign plan last year.
As the 38-year-old Harvard Law graduate noted, he assumes the leadership of the party at its strongest point in a century, after successful efforts in 2000, 2002 and 2004. The biggest challenge for Republicans may be extending that winning streak in the 2006 midterm elections, when second-term presidents historically see their party lose seats in Congress.
Mehlman called on Republicans to broaden the party's appeal to swing voters, including those under 30, who, he said, could be lured by Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security with private retirement accounts.
He was careful to avoid harsh rhetoric and went out of his way to call on his Democratic counterpart to join in "changing the tone in Washington." Mehlman said it was important for the major parties to work together to promote the idea of politics as an honorable profession.
Another task facing Bush and his party chairman is preventing internal strains that could frustrate the president's ability to get his domestic agenda through Congress. Already, Bush's plan to overhaul immigration laws and make it easier for millions of workers illegally in this country to find temporary jobs has run into strong opposition from conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Inside the RNC, Mehlman had to scramble to tamp down opposition from restive conservatives over the choice of an abortion-rights Republican as the party's co-chairman.
Mehlman escorted Jo Ann Davidson, a former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, to a series of closed-door regional caucuses where she assured party members that she fully supports the Bush agenda.
Until recently, Davidson's name had appeared on the Web site of a Republican group that favors abortion rights, which said she had been a member of the group's advisory committee since its founding in 1990. According to RNC spokesman Brian Jones, Davidson, who supports abortion rights, did not authorize the use of her name.
"I know I need to earn your trust, and I plan to do that," Davidson told the full Republican National Committee RNC after members elected her co-chairman.