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Bush Targets N.D., Fla. Races

The White House has become increasingly involved in candidate recruitment over the past month in the crucial Senate races of Florida and North Dakota, according to informed Republican sources.

In Florida, White House senior adviser Karl Rove has spoken with Rep. Katherine Harris (R) two or three times in the last month to discuss her possible candidacy against Sen. Bill Nelson (D).

Some see Rove’s recent efforts as a final attempt to discourage the polarizing Harris from making the contest; others closer to Harris insist the talks were simply aimed at taking her temperature on the race.

Meanwhile, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) will be in Washington, D.C., this week and is expected to meet with White House political operatives and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Hoeven is considering a challenge to Sen. Kent Conrad (D).

While not denying its activities in Florida and North Dakota, the White House political operation insisted that it has been steadily working to convince top-tier candidates to make Senate, gubernatorial and House races all across the country and that there has been no increase in their level of engagement in recent weeks.

White House officials — led by political director Sara Taylor — meet every Tuesday with their colleagues at the NRSC, National Republican Congressional Committee, and Republican National Committee to coordinate recruitment as well as discuss more general political strategy.

Like these gatherings, much of the White House’s recruitment work is done behind the scenes and therefore does not draw significant media attention, said administration loyalists.

“Successful recruiting efforts don’t take place in the public eye,” said one Republican strategist familiar with the process. “They can’t be judged while they are under way.”

Brian Nick, spokesman for the NRSC, said that “both the White House and the Republican National Committee have been incredibly helpful on candidate recruitment.”

Others, however, suggested that until recently White House operatives have not been nearly as willing to wade into individual races as they were in the 2002 and 2004 cycles.

“The White House is now focused on a policy legacy not a political one,” said one high-level Republican source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that he could speak frankly. “They will do what they have to do for 2006 but it doesn’t take nearly the level of priority that it did in 2002.”

In 2002, the White House played a high profile role in candidate recruitment in at least five targeted races: Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, South Dakota and Texas.

Two stand out.

In Minnesota, Vice President Cheney called then state House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty (R) just 90 minutes before he was planning to announce for Senate, urging him to switch to the governor’s race. Pawlenty did, a move that cleared the Republican field for now Sen. Norm Coleman.

President Bush met privately with then-Rep. John Thune (R) several times in South Dakota and Washington, D.C., to convince him to abandon a sure-thing gubernatorial race for a challenge to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in 2002. Thune made the Senate race, narrowly lost, then bounced back in 2004 to oust Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D).

“It made getting candidates that much easier when they knew the president would come and do [an event] for them,” said a party operative. “Not too many people get to stand in front of a room of their peers and have the president of the United States say nice things about them.”

During the 2004 election, the White House was primarily focused on re-electing Bush but did help where it could.

Unlike 2002, however, the administration played almost no role in picking candidates in Republican primaries. As a result, GOPers waged intraparty battles in a number of top-tier races, including Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Only in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Arlen Specter (R) beat back a primary challenge from then-Rep. Pat Toomey (R), did the White House take an active role — on the incumbent’s behalf.

“The White House’s track record when it comes to recruiting top-tier candidates speaks for itself in the 2002 and 2004 election cycles,” said one knowledgeable Republican close to the process. “It has the same level of priority and importance in 2006.”

So far this cycle, however, Republicans’ most public recruiting efforts have gone badly.

Late last year, Bush tapped then Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns (R) to be his secretary of Agriculture, robbing Senate Republicans of their prized recruit against Sen. Ben Nelson (D).

Then in February, Bush traveled to Nebraska and called Nelson “a man with whom I can work, a person who is willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what’s right for America.”

That statement put a major damper on the party’s recruitment effort; former state Attorney General Don Stenberg, who lost to Nelson in 2000, is the only announced candidate for Republicans.

In Michigan earlier this year, Bush privately urged Rep. Candice Miller (R) to run against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) during a visit to the state but she backed out of the race less than a week later.

During that recruitment, Bush got into a semi-public spat with Miller’s chief of staff over whether he had specifically asked her to run or simply told her she would make a strong candidate. Bush insisted it was the latter.

That delineation has been made privately in several other cases so far this year, according to informed Republicans, and is important to a White House unwilling to risk tarnishing Bush’s image and legacy. Bush and Cheney encourage candidates to make a race, GOP officials say — they do not ask them to run.

Party strategists suggest that a final judgement on how committed the White House is to recruiting a strong 2006 Senate class will become apparent in the coming weeks and months.

Florida seems likely to be the first shoe to drop, with a decision by Harris expected in the very near future.

Should she bow out of the race, the White House would immediately turn to convincing either Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher or state Attorney General Charlie Crist, both of whom are currently in the 2006 governor’s race, to switch to a Senate bid.

In North Dakota, a Hoeven decision seems slightly further off and is complicated by Bush’s outreach to Conrad on Social Security.

Conrad is seen as one of a handful of persuadable Democrats on the reform of the retirement system, and might be less willing to negotiate if the White House is actively recruiting a challenger against him.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) has been the subject of an all-out recruitment effort by the White House, NRSC and RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman — a Maryland native — and seems increasingly likely to make the open-seat race to replace retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D). Such a decision would be a major coup for the party.

In Washington state, the Senate race there is likely to take on a higher priority following a court decision Monday that provided a major setback to former state Sen. Dino Rossi’s (R) attempt to overturn the results of the 2004 governor’s race.

The White House has already made clear to former Rep. Rick White (R) and Safeco chief executive Mike McGavick, both of whom are interested in challenging Sen. Maria Cantwell (D), that Rossi is the preferred candidate should his gubernatorial challenge fall through and has the right of first refusal, a source familiar with those conversations said.

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