To Republicans' delight, the anti-Dean

Politics: GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman, a party man from Pikesville, hews solidly and quietly to the party line.

June 27, 2005|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LIVONIA, Mich. - Clever sound bites didn't earn Ken Mehlman his job as head of the Republican National Committee. He ground his way to the top less glamorously - by mastering the nuts and bolts of campaign mechanics and staying rock-solid loyal to President Bush.

Still, Mehlman had a snappy retort ready after Democratic Chairman Howard Dean recently characterized the Republicans as "pretty much a white, Christian party." Mehlman responded by telling the Fox News Channel: "A lot of the folks who attended my bar mitzvah would be surprised to learn that."

After five months in the chairman's post, it's become increasingly clear that Mehlman is the anti-Dean - to the delight of Republicans and the discomfort of more than a few Democrats.

Mehlman, a 38-year-old Pikesville native, is as unknown as Dean is famous. He has no difficulty making his way through a busy airport terminal without turning a single head.

More significantly, he is intensely disciplined. Mehlman has yet to commit a serious gaffe, in sharp contrast to Dean's penchant for the ill-chosen remark.

Like other members of the Bush team, Mehlman hews relentlessly, if not robotically, to the party line. An old acquaintance who knew Mehlman from his Harvard Law School days in the early '90s was surprised by how closely the RNC chairman stuck to his talking points, even in a private conversation.

Before audiences large and small, he rarely strays from the written text of his speeches, which repeat the administration's message and seldom make news. He cautiously avoids uncontrolled situations, such as news conferences (he hasn't held any in his current job).

Yet he sailed through his first Sunday morning interview, an hourlong session this month with Tim Russert of Meet the Press, renowned for his ability to trip up the most seasoned politician.

`Important virtue'

John Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political scientist who once worked at the RNC, said Mehlman "just doesn't generate negative publicity, and from the standpoint of the White House, that's a pretty important virtue."

He added that Mehlman has managed to do "a bang-up job" at "one of the toughest jobs in politics" - chairing the party that is in power at the White House. With Bush and his top strategist, Karl Rove, calling the shots, Mehlman hasn't got as much power as Dean or as much latitude to act on his own. But he can count on having to defend the administration in bad political times.

Former Republican Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf said Mehlman has less independence than he did during President Ronald Reagan's second term. Under Rove, who is Mehlman's longtime mentor, there is "tighter integration" of the party apparatus and the White House than ever, he said.

That close integration is one reason Bush chose Mehlman for the party job after his successful re-election campaign last fall, which Mehlman managed on a day-to-day basis. Mehlman's RNC term runs through the end of next year, though he is feeling pressure from Republicans who want him to stay through the 2008 presidential election.

A recent Dean dictum that drew bipartisan criticism - that "a lot of Republicans have never made an honest living in their lives" - wouldn't seem to apply to his Republican counterpart.

Mehlman has been working overtime - more than 80 hours in an average week, by his estimate - at an annual salary of $208,100. He has attended more than 112 events in 19 states and Puerto Rico, according to his office. "Even his downtime is scheduled," wrote aide Ann Marie Hauser in an e-mail declining an offer from a reporter to share a casual beverage with Mehlman after his speech the other night in the Detroit area.

Gain in contributions

Under Mehlman, the national party has widened its financial edge over the Democrats, raising more than twice as much. The RNC reported that it collected $52 million in individual contributions, a record in a non-election year, through the end of last month.

Unlike Dean, who has been taken to the woodshed by elected Democrats uncomfortable with him as their party leader, Mehlman is a regular participant in weekly gatherings of Republicans in the Senate and House. He stays in constant contact with Rove and others at the White House, meeting and dealing with Bush only "when I need to," he said.

It is Mehlman's focus on grass-roots organization, an extension of his efforts in Bush's re-election campaign, that will likely be the hallmark of his tenure at party headquarters, Republicans say.

Second-term presidents rarely bother with party-building, but Bush has been trying. Mehlman's assignment is not only to keep the nation's most powerful political machine humming, but to strengthen and expand it.

The Republicans are employing many of the voter-contact tools honed in the '04 re-election campaign, including the latest computer technology, to promote Bush's legislative agenda and, perhaps as soon as this week, mobilize support behind his choice of a new Supreme Court justice.

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