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Despite Woes, GOP Sees Opportunities to Recoup Before ’06

Democrats and the media have it right: The Republican Party faces a world of woes. But whether this translates into Democratic victories in the 2006 elections remains open to question.

Or, as one House Democratic leader reportedly told a GOP colleague on the eve of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (Texas) indictment, “I just wish the elections were this week.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Just after his indictment, DeLay told me, “the Democrats have peaked too soon.”

DeLay said he thinks Democrats have delayed organization of the House ethics committee to prevent it from investigating him — and “clearing me” — before the 2006 elections.

And, he said they probably wish that Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle had indicted him next year, not now, so he’d be an election-year piñata.

His timetable now is to be tried and acquitted on the weak, one-count election conspiracy indictment against him by December and be back in charge of the House majority next year.

Some of his colleagues privately hope that doesn’t happen. One of them said he hopes DeLay will “sink beneath the waves,” at least past next November, in order to deprive Democrats of a target.

In the meantime, of course, Congressional Democrats have plenty of other targets — DeLay’s ties to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the indictment of a White House procurement official also affiliated with Abramoff, unrelated investigations of stock sales by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and negative reviews of the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, among other things.

Democrats are bundling this list into a campaign denouncing “a Republican culture of corruption and cronyism.”

However, Republicans say they have plenty of time to recover before voters make a definitive judgment on GOP rule.

Whatever happens to DeLay, they anticipate that Frist will be cleared of suspicion of insider trading in his sale of stock in his family’s health care business.

They note with some satisfaction that the Gallup poll showed that 71 percent of the public approved of President Bush’s handling of Hurricane Rita, compared with 40 percent for Katrina — evidence of the power of an in-charge incumbent to turn things around.

Factoring in continuing violence in Iraq, high energy prices and gloom about the economy, one top party official told me “it’s definitely not a good environment — not where we want it to be.”

On the other hand, he said, “the president is not at levels like [Richard] Nixon’s in Watergate or [Ronald] Reagan in Iran-Contra, and there’s no evidence that we’re having trouble with candidate recruitment or raising money. Also, our base is solid, and it’s a lot bigger than it used to be.”

In last week’s Gallup poll, Bush’s overall approval rating was 45 percent, up from 40 the week before. Actually, Reagan never went below 45 percent during the Iran-Contra scandal. Nixon’s approval amid Watergate was 25 percent.

Ultimately, Bush’s reputation will rest on events in Iraq, his effectiveness in rebuilding the Gulf Coast region and the strength of the economy.

Congressional Republicans say the outcome of Iraq’s Oct. 15 constitutional referendum will be crucial, along with progress in training the Iraqi military so that some U.S. troops can return home next year.

The national economy, already fundamentally strong, could well boom as the government undertakes what Bush has called “one of the largest reconstruction projects in history.”

House GOP leaders hope to heal rifts in their own ranks over burgeoning federal spending by limiting immediate new outlays for hurricane relief to $50 billion and offsetting that with an across-the-board cut in appropriations plus an increase in entitlement cuts to $50 billion over a five-year period.

“Democrats will scream bloody murder” at the cuts, said one GOP moderate, “but that will show who’s really the party of fiscal responsibility.”

Meanwhile, party leaders say they don’t see how Democrats can translate even the current political situation into a 1994-style takeover of Congress.

Democrats need to win a net six Senate seats and 16 House seats to take control of Congress. In the Senate, GOP leaders count only five potentially vulnerable GOP seats and as many as seven shaky Democratic seats, making a takeover unlikely.

In the House, “the numbers to remember are 41 and 18. Forty-one is Democrats in districts that Bush carried, 18 is Republicans in seats that [Sen. John] Kerry [D-Mass.] carried.

“We’re going to mount a Bush-re-election kind of aggressive program to protect our incumbents — voter registration, voter ID, grass-roots activities, Vice Presidential fundraisers, all of it,” the GOP leader said.

Finally, added this party official, “whatever the polls may say about us right now, they show that voters trust the Democrats even less.”

That’s not quite true, but the Democratic advantage, even now, is very slim.

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