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Foes, allies lay victory at feet of president

By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 7, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Here's one way to explain Tuesday's elections, which saw Republicans take full control of the Congress: "a referendum on a popular wartime president."

That assessment came not from an admiring Republican but from Democrat Nita Lowey of New York. It was a frustrated recognition of President Bush's risky but ultimately profitable decision to lay his prestige on the line for GOP candidates nationwide.

"We have never seen a president campaign like this," Lowey said. "He was consuming all the air."

The president campaigned tirelessly for Republicans. He raised a record $180-million and jetted around the country in Air Force One, visiting 15 states during the five days before the election.

Though expected to claim the GOP's off-year sweep as a vote of confidence for his administration, Bush made no public appearances Wednesday. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer explained that the president wanted to show "a touch of graciousness" by leaving the limelight to the winning candidates.

But Republicans were happy to speak on his behalf.

"The message to our allies is that we stand with the president," said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who will be majority leader in the 108th Congress as a result of the GOP gains. "This president did receive an incredible, historical vote of confidence."

Traditionally, the president's party loses congressional seats during off-year elections. The last time a president succeeded in increasing his party's congressional majority by campaigning for candidates in an off-year election was in 1934 when Franklin D. Roosevelt held the office.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to duplicate Roosevelt's effort, he failed. That caused political commentators of that era to observe that a military-style Eisenhower jacket had no coattails.

But even Roosevelt did not work as hard as Bush, according to Stephen Hess, presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.

"It was historic because no one else ever did it that way," Hess said of Bush's effort on behalf of his fellow Republicans. "It was remarkable because what it told us about him as a risk-taker."

GOP pollster David Winston noted that while Bush's campaigning would have diminished his reputation if many Republicans had lost in the election, the president seized it as an opportunity to effectively win popular support for his agenda in Congress.

"By campaigning as he did," Winston said, "the president has created a better situation for himself than he had after 2000. It created a better context for him to bring up his agenda and have it acted upon by Congress. It gave him an opportunity to go into different parts of the country and say, 'Here's what we are trying to do.' He got the voters to send a message to Washington."

The president's tactics also succeeded in converting the election from a local to a national contest, according to Winston, and helped Republicans demonstrate that the Democrats lacked a positive national message.

Democrats chose to attack the Republicans instead of promoting an agenda of their own.

Winston said it backfired, in part because many Democrats seeking re-election had voted for the president's tax cuts and other measures that their party was condemning.

Before the election, Democratic leaders discussed the idea of drafting a campaign document similar to the Contract With America that helped Republicans gain control of the House in 1994. But they were unable to agree on a number of basic issues.

"The Democrats are a party that is badly divided," Winston noted.

Acknowledging that Democrats lacked a overriding election theme, Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe pledged his party would solve that problem before fielding a candidate to run against Bush in 2004.

By then, he said, "We will be out there with a national message and we will beat George Bush."

McAuliffe and other Democrats also said that with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, Bush can no longer blame Democrats for his failures.

"The Bush era begins today," McAuliffe declared. "Now he will have to produce. No more blame game, no more sputtering about an uncooperative Senate."

Fleischer said the president would ask the new Congress to revisit many of the measures that it failed to pass during the past two years, including pension and welfare reform, energy legislation, ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the Republican version of prescription drug benefits for Medicare patients and creation of a homeland security department.

In addition, Bush is known to be preparing a new program for improving public school teaching, including a tax deduction for teachers who spend their own money to buy supplies for their students.

Hess said GOP control of Congress gives Bush the chance to set the congressional agenda over the next two years, to get his judicial nominees confirmed and to avoid the kind of perpetual investigations by congressional committees that were prevalent during the Clinton administration.

Yet Bush will not get his program through Congress without the cooperation of Democrats, because the Republican margin will be slim in both the House and the Senate.

Fleischer admitted the narrow nature of the GOP majority will force Bush to work in a bipartisan manner with Congress.

"There's a lot more to do and the president looks forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to do it," he said.

On Wednesday, Bush called many newly elected lawmakers of both parties, such as Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor, who defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson.

Fleischer said the president had already telephoned 30 members of Congress on Tuesday night.

During the campaign, Bush made two appearances each on behalf of three GOP Senate candidates who won Tuesday: Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Jim Talent in Missouri and Norm Coleman in Minnesota.

Other winners who benefited from Bush's assistance included his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush , along with Gov. George Pataki in New York, Gov. Bob Taft in Ohio and Senate candidates Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

But some candidates Bush tried to help were defeated.

These included GOP gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Tennessee, Iowa and New Mexico, all states Bush hopes to win when he seeks re-election in 2004.

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