White House `happy talk' aimed at cheering faithful

Bush expressing optimism despite gloomy polls for Republicans

The Nation Votes 2006

15 Days Until Nov 7

October 23, 2006|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON --The capital is filled with Republicans convinced that they will lose the House and maybe the Senate. So last week, the White House and party leaders convened a "friends and allies" teleconference to dispute what Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, considers flawed conventional wisdom.

For 20 minutes, Mehlman and the White House political director, Sara Taylor, tried to lift the cloak of gloom that has descended on the top ranks of Republican strategists, using what one of the dozens of lobbyists, donors, party aides and other supporters who listened in later called "happy talk."

President Bush and his political strategists may be the most outwardly optimistic Republicans in Washington these days, and perhaps the only ones. They are doing their best to fend off the sense of impending doom within their party that they fear will become a self-fulfilling prophecy on Nov. 7.

They are enlisting longtime allies for an all-hands-on-deck effort to change the mood for the push to Election Day, and they are putting out the word for Republicans to keep a lid on any pessimistic talk. They are also planning a travel blitz for Bush during the final week to 10 days of the campaign.

And though they fully expect to lose seats, they are also keeping their fingers crossed. They are counting on a barrage of last-minute advertising and their 72-hour voter turnout operation to keep Democrats from taking over the House and Senate, even if it means they only eke out a victory.

But those the White House counts on to help boost party morale at such low moments say they are having a hard time of it this go-round, when so many polls augur ever-worsening election results and when so many things have gone wrong, including the Mark Foley scandal and grim news from Iraq.

"I'm trying to buck people up, but let's just say I'm hiding all the sharp objects in my office," said Rich Bond, a former Republican National Committee chairman who now runs a consulting firm.

Even Mary Matalin, the longtime Bush family aide and confidante, confessed, "I'm in my stoic mode now," though she said she believed that the party would ultimately stave off defeat.

Bush has been saying for months that he believes Republicans will keep control of the House and the Senate, and he is not changing his tune now - even if it means taking the rare step of rebuking his own father.

In an interview shown yesterday on ABC News, the president was asked about a comment by the first President Bush, who said this month that he hated to think about life for his son if Democrats took control of Congress. "He shouldn't be speculating like this, because he should have called me ahead of time," the president said, "and I'd tell him they're not going to."

The president's professed certainty, shared with outside friends and advisers, is a source of fascination among even his staunchest allies. In lobbying shops and strategy firms around town, the latest Republican parlor game is divining whether the White House optimism is staged or real.

There are hints that the mood is not so upbeat or unremittingly confident in the West Wing. Bush and his inner circle, people in regular contact with them say, are well aware of the Democratic surge recorded by polls, and of the stakes for the final two years of an administration already burdened with troubles like the deteriorating situation in Iraq.

The Republicans' own polling shows that as many as 14 House seats are probably already lost to Democrats, according to a strategist close to the White House - just one shy of the 15 seats they need to gain to win control.

Though White House aides said that figure was exaggerated, they acknowledged that polls have shown at least that many races with Democrats leading Republicans.

Officials are telling their friends that they believe a final volley of intensive attacks by the White House will return the party to where it was before the Foley scandal, by casting the election as a choice over national security and taxes.

Bush and Karl Rove, his senior adviser, are discounting predictions of Republican demise because they have seen them turn out wrong before. "I remember 2004," Bush said in the interview shown on This Week. "I was history as far as the punditry was concerned."

Rove has told associates that the party's turnout machinery, through which the White House will continue to pump an unrelenting message against Democrats on taxes and terrorism, gives Republicans an advantage of 4 to 7 percentage points in any given race.

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