Energized by a seemingly successful Republican convention, President Bush quietly summoned more than 20 of his most active Congressional allies to the White House last week for a pep talk on the state of his campaign.
The meeting, which took place in the Yellow Oval Room in the White House residence Thursday morning, was conceived as a way for Bush to express his appreciation to GOP leaders and lawmakers from battleground states for their efforts to date and lay out a road map to victory in the fall.
“I think the message was to thank the Members for the work we’ve been doing here,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), adding that Bush seemed “upbeat and energized” about the campaign’s prospects.
Vice President Cheney, campaign manager Ken Mehlman, Karl Rove and other White House staffers all took part in the gathering, but Bush did the vast majority of the talking before taking a few questions, according to attendees. The Bush campaign did not return a call seeking comment on the meeting.
Along with the House GOP leadership, the guest list included Ohio Reps. John Boehner and Rob Portman and Florida Reps. Adam Putnam, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen. Also invited were Reps. David Dreier (Calif.), Candice Miller (Mich.), Melissa Hart (Pa.), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Steve Pearce (N.M.), J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.).
Attendees from the other side of the Capitol included Republican Sens. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), George Allen (Va.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and John Cornyn (Texas).
The meeting came as Congressional Republicans are attempting to finish work on a final handful of legislative priorities before leaving town to campaign for their own re-elections as well as Bush’s.
The White House has emphasized in recent conversations with lawmakers and Hill aides that its biggest priorities for the remainder of the session are implementing Bush’s intelligence reform proposals and extending politically important tax cuts.
Beyond those big-ticket items, Congress has relatively little legislative role to play in helping Bush defeat Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in November, which is why the president’s campaign has steered GOP lawmakers toward acting as surrogates in the media and overseeing grassroots efforts in their home states.
In his remarks to the assembled lawmakers, Bush conveyed calm confidence about the state of the campaign and reminded them that he has been through this process multiple times, not just in 2000 but also during his father’s campaigns.
“He said, ‘This is the fourth presidential campaign I’ve been involved in,’” said a lawmaker who was present.
Another Member said Bush was “pumped” by the enthusiasm he has seen on the campaign trail and that he felt a “response and connection” from the crowds at his events.
Bush’s optimism was undiminished by the renewed flap over his National Guard service, and he warned lawmakers that his opponents would throw all kinds of charges at him before Election Day.
That confidence was soothing to Congressional Republicans, who say that they believe their convention in New York was successful but are wary of feeling more than cautious optimism about Bush’s chances in November.
In particular, Members at the meeting from swing states or districts that have hit hard economic times were eager to ask Bush about a message focused on creating new jobs. Other lawmakers expressed concern about the rising cost of prescription drugs and the campaign’s need to do a better job appealing to women voters.
Coming after Bush met with a separate bipartisan group of lawmakers to discuss intelligence reform, the campaign meeting began at 10 a.m. and lasted just over an hour. Members said they could feel the wind from Marine One’s rotors coming through the open doors to the Truman Balcony after the helicopter arrived to take Bush to his next appointment.