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National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) said Wednesday he believes the GOP will emerge from its national convention more unified and energized than Democrats were after nominating Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) as their presidential candidate last week.

But at the same time, Cole painted the harshest picture yet of the tough spending decisions Congressional Republicans will have to make over the next two months as they choose how they will allocate their limited resources to save the maximum number of seats.

In an interview in St. Paul, Minn., where the party faithful have gathered this week to officially nominate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as their 2008 standard-bearer, Cole said he has told the committee’s independent expenditure arm to be “brutal” in making the decisions about where to spend money and when to cut candidates loose because they have deemed the race unwinnable.

“If it comes a time to cut off, or you see an opportunity moved, then be brutal,” Cole said he has instructed his IE team. “We’re not doing this. We can’t do this any other way. The deal is to save seats, win seats, get the army over the river and onto the high ground as best we can and then see what things look like on the other side of the election. So you gotta be brutal, and they will be.”

Federal election law prohibits Cole from being involved in the IE’s decisions on where to spend TV advertising dollars. While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already reserved $53 million in TV time in competitive districts around the county, Cole tried to put his committee’s limited financial resources in the best possible light by arguing that it leaves Republicans with some degree of flexibility on where they choose to spend, even if they can’t go up on the air until late in the game. The NRCC has reserved $18 million in advertising across 26 Congressional districts. The money will be moved around and reallocated as needed between now and Election Day by both parties.

“Don’t overanalyze where the money’s at today, because remember we have less money,” Cole said. “We’ll play later in most races than the DCCC does. It’s an advantage they’ve got. It may make us a little more nimble and certainly willing to change direction.”

As of July 31, the NRCC had just $14.2 million in cash on hand while the DCCC had $56.4 million. Cole has repeatedly tried to drive home the message to GOP Members this cycle that the committee will not have the luxury of spending millions on races that appear to be lost causes, as it occasionally did in the past.

In 2006, Republicans were well-funded and had the ability to spend freely in an attempt to retain their majority in the House. Ultimately that effort failed. Democrats picked up 30 seats and the NRCC ended the cycle swimming in nearly $20 million in debt.

The current election cycle features an even larger playing field of competitive races and an atmosphere that is tilted in favor of Democrats.

Still, Cole praised McCain’s pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) to be his running mate, asserting that the move would be helpful to House Republicans downballot in some areas. Specifically, Cole said Palin could help the GOP in races in the Deep South, as well as some key western battlegrounds such as Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona.

Palin not only helps to reinforce McCain’s image as an unconventional reformer, Cole said, but she has also fired up the conservative base in a way that will be helpful to Republican candidates across the board.

“Your base is not enough [to win] but it’s got to believe in you, be active and be supportive. And I think John McCain succeeded brilliantly at that” with the Palin pick, he said.

Cole also said he believes it was a mistake for Obama not to pick Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), his primary campaign foe, as his running mate.

While he said he doesn’t believe that Clinton supporters will be drawn to the McCain/Palin ticket, he thinks those activists will be less inclined to get involved in the presidential and Congressional campaigns than they normally would be.

McCain has “succeeded politically in uniting and energizing his base at his convention,” Cole said. “I’d argue that Barack Obama probably didn’t get that done. Certainly missed an opportunity to do it better, in my opinion, if he’d have chosen Sen. Clinton.”

The emergence of energy as a leading issue in the 2008 campaign has also been a boost to Republicans, said Cole, who spent most of August on the campaign trail doing news conferences at gas stations across the country.

“All these votes that didn’t seem very significant about ANWR and off-coast drilling, now count,” he said, referencing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

As McCain relishes his role as the underdog in the presidential campaign, Cole said as long as the race at the top of the ticket remains close Republicans downballot stand a fighting chance.

“He can’t be Apollo Creed. He’s gotta be Rocky,” Cole said. “For us to be successful at the Congressional level, we certainly have got to have at the minimum a presidential campaign that is fiercely competitive, close, and helps us reposition who we are.”

Cole was scheduled to speak during Monday’s convention program, along with several top House candidates and incumbents who are being targeted. But the appearances were canceled when the program was vastly scaled back in deference to Hurricane Gustav. Most of the candidates didn’t stick around and left town, but Cole was expected to address the convention Wednesday night.

DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) was also in St. Paul on Wednesday as part of the Democratic push-back effort.

Much of the focus this election cycle has been on the energy and enthusiasm among Democrats hungry to return to power in the White House, but Cole argued that another interesting story is the changing face of House Republicans.

“We’re going to get a new group of Members, a big group of Members in these Republican open seats and a few places where we can beat them, that are going to change our caucus,” he said.

Although the decision won’t be made until after Election Day, Cole has not indicated whether he would like to return as head of the committee in the 111th Congress.

He reflected a little bit on his own legacy as NRCC chairman, citing the fact that the IE arm will make all of the decisions on ad spending without his input.

“Sadly, then I’ll be held accountable for all the things these guys do that I didn’t get to have any damn thing to do with,” Cole said. “It’s the nature of the business.”

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