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Even Republican spinmaster cautious about gains

By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 4, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The word "intense" is not strong enough to describe the demeanor of Ken Mehlman, the White House political director. The New York Times recently said he has the "earnest manner of an over-caffeinated Eagle Scout."

WASHINGTON -- The word "intense" is not strong enough to describe the demeanor of Ken Mehlman, the White House political director. The New York Times recently said he has the "earnest manner of an over-caffeinated Eagle Scout."

Mehlman, 36, reports to President Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove, and oversees the day-to-day White House contacts with allied politicians, Republican donors and interest groups. He is a very fast talker with a determined gaze.

In recent weeks, Mehlman has been more wound up than usual because he is directing the White House effort to elect a Republican-controlled Congress that would carry out the administration's agenda and assist in Bush's re-election in 2004.

No detail is too small to be ignored by Mehlman, according to his colleagues. In a White House where press secretary Ari Fleischer never has time to talk with some reporters, Mehlman generously tells them all to "call me anytime."

And Bush's political director is so unflinchingly loyal to the Republican cause that he was even willing, with a straight face, to bestow the White House seal of approval on Bill Simon's hapless campaign for governor of California.

"We have very much confidence in Bill Simon," Mehlman told reporters last week. "'We think it's a competitive race."

At the same time, this expansive, energetic young fellow turned cautious when asked to handicap the Republicans' chances of retaining control of the House and capturing a Senate majority in Tuesday's election.

"Either of those accomplishments would be historic," he declared. "This is not your typical off-year election." He was particularly careful when asked about the Senate. "I think it's a jump ball -- especially hard to predict."

Historically, the president's party loses seats in Congress during off-year elections. In 1994, for example, two years after President Bill Clinton entered the White House, Republicans took control of the House for the first time in four decades.

Reporters did not know what to make of Mehlman's cautious response. Is he just low-balling his prediction to dampen expectations, they wondered, or does he have some secret polling data to suggest that the outcome will not be as dramatic as other Republicans have been predicting?

Until now, the White House has made no effort to dampen expectations. To the contrary, Republicans are acting as if they can taste victory.

The president's nonstop travels to key states -- including a dozen trips to Florida -- have contributed to the notion that Bush and other leaders of the Republican party expect a dramatic GOP sweep across the nation. In fact, Bush has put so much effort into winning this election for the GOP that his own reputation as a politician is also at stake.

But if White House officials have polling data that gives them pause, Mehlman was not sharing it with the press. He generously describes all the races in which the Republican candidate is trailing as "competitive."

On most of the issues, Mehlman seemed confident the Republicans have made a good case for their point of view. He says the president's threat to go to war against Iraq will have no political consequences because both Democrats and Republicans are behind it.

Social Security is a different matter, however.

Mehlman's comments about Social Security caused reporters to conclude that Republicans are being hurt in the polls by expressing their desire to create individual investment accounts for younger workers.

As a result, the word "privatize" is no longer being used at the White House to describe the GOP proposal. Mehlman insisted the type of accounts Bush wants to create are "government-protected," not private. The president has never favored privatization, he said.

When opponents of private accounts heard about Mehlman's remarks, they promptly dug through some old transcripts of Bush remarks during the last presidential campaign and found this one the GOP candidate made during a stop in Iowa on Jan. 20, 2000: "What privatization does is allow the individual worker his or her choice to set aside money in a managed account with parameters in the marketplace."

No matter what happens in Tuesday's election, the Social Security debate is with us for years to come.

-- Sara Fritz can be reached by e-mail at fritz@sptimes.com and by telephone at 202-463-0576.

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