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Fresh from driving the ground-game juggernaut that got President Bush re-elected, Ken Mehlman, the soon-to-be Republican National Committee chairman, is ready to put Bush’s 2004 field army to work on his bold, but beleaguered, agenda.

As he prepares for his second inauguration, Bush is faced with almost down-the-line opposition to his programs from Democrats — who act as if no election had taken place — and doubts even within GOP ranks about portions of the president’s agenda, notably Social Security and immigration reform. [IMGCAP(1)]

Yet, Mehlman sees mainly opportunities in the challenges: to exercise and build the party and to win support from all-important constituencies like young people and Hispanics.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for synergy in what we do for the next two years,” Mehlman said in an interview. “I think the Republican Party can be a big force in helping pass the agenda. And by doing that, we help build the party.”

Mehlman won’t discuss how much money he plans to raise for pushing Bush and for boosting Republicans in the ’06 elections, but it’s fair to predict, based on past performance, that GOP committees will beat the $691 million they raised in the 2002 midterm election cycle, before soft money was banned.

In 2000, when it was able to collect both limited “hard” dollars and unlimited “soft” money, the Republican National Committee and its subordinate campaign committees raised $715 million. The 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign raised $191 million, including federal matching funds.

In 2004, able to accept only hard dollars, GOP committees raised $863 million (compared to $710 million for the Democrats) and Bush-Cheney collected $366 million (compared to $322 million for the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry).

Both sides beat expectations in 2004, but the Mehlman-led Bush-Cheney campaign clearly outexecuted Democrats on the ground, registering 3.4 million new voters, 7.5 million activists, 1.4 million volunteers and 60,000 precinct workers around the country.

Under Mehlman, the RNC likely will not use its precious hard dollars to run TV ads on behalf of Bush’s Social Security plan or judicial nominations.

Instead, it will leave that work to friendly independent 527 committees like Progress for America, which is already on the air advocating private accounts for younger workers.

The RNC will provide “research, rapid response, grassroots organization, surrogates — all the things you saw on the campaign” for key agenda items, especially Social Security, judicial appointments and tax reform.

Mehlman wouldn’t discuss specific tactics, but it’s not hard to imagine Bush-Cheney precinct organizers working phones and their computers to generate avalanches of mail to Members of Congress, while every Democratic blast against Bush proposals is answered within minutes in e-mails to the media, as happened during the campaign.

Democrats certainly are giving Bush no honeymoon, with the party, left and center, declaring opposition to almost everything Bush proposes, starting with Social Security.

The degree of opposition was evident last week in the assertion by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) that, despite Bush’s 51 percent to 48 percent victory over Kerry and the GOP’s dominance in Congress, Democrats “speak for the majority of Americans.”

It was also demonstrated in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by one of the party’s smartest “New Democrats,” Dan Gerstein, a former top aide to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). Gerstein felt he had to cushion his case for centrism with ad hominem shots at Bush as “a draft-avoider who has bungled both Iraq and our national finances” and whose election in 2000 was only “ostensibly” fair.

Even if Republicans seem divided on issues like Social Security and immigration, Mehlman says, GOP differences — and Bush’s difficulties — are far less deep than those facing Democrats.

“The challenge for an ‘out’ party,” he said, “is to not define yourself in comparison to the ‘in’ party. The danger is to become the ‘moon’ party that reflects what the ‘sun’ is doing.”

Parties that ultimately returned to power — the GOP in 1980 and Democrats in 1992 — spent their “out” years “planning and thinking about future challenges” and inventing ideas like marginal tax cuts to energize the economy and “third way” approaches to welfare and health care.

“I think that is what a party does if it really wants to look to the future. The problem for the Democrats is that their base is obsessed with being anti-Bush. Nothing has changed since the election,” Mehlman said.

Actually, Kennedy did propose a number of new ideas — headlined by birth-to-death Medicare coverage for everyone — that would give the United States the kind of European-style social-welfare system that even Europeans now consider unaffordable.

Even though a number of Republicans are leery of Social Security reform — Mehlman acknowledges it is Bush’s “biggest political challenge” — the incoming RNC chairman contends that the GOP is not as divided over Social Security as Democrats are on Iraq.

“Some Republicans are worried about the political wisdom of doing this, but I don’t think they disagree with the principle of letting younger workers have personal savings accounts. They worry about how you explain it.

“What we need to do is reassure them. The full resources of the White House and the party will be focused on this. We’ll remind them that five Republicans campaigned specifically on Social Security reform”: Sens. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), John Sununu (N.H.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.), Rep. Anne Northup (Ky.) and President Bush. “All won,” he notes.

“Private accounts offer a tremendous opportunity to reach out to younger voters,” Mehlman said. Voters 18 to 29 were the only age group in which Bush lost support from 2000 to 2004. His approval with that group is currently 36 percent — 14 percent behind his national average, according to Gallup. Yet, by 55 percent to 42 percent, young voters think that private accounts are “a good thing,” even if it means cuts in their guaranteed benefits.

“We want to institutionalize the 2004 support for the party,” Mehlman says. “Getting involved in the Social Security debate, in confirming judges, all that helps strengthen the party.”

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