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Gop At A Loss? Karl Rove Has An 11th-hour Plan To Win

He taps government resources to boost candidates in need.

Pink Light, Disaster Aid

October 29, 2006|Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writers

BUFFALO, N.Y. — During a whirlwind five-hour trip to bolster an endangered GOP congressman's reelection prospects, White House political guru Karl Rove last week delivered a fiery speech to 500 party activists, then shook every available hand and posed for snapshots like a rock star. He toured suburbs recently trashed by a snowstorm. He also found time to huddle with local strategists.

But the most significant element of Rove's effort to help four-term Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds keep his job may have occurred behind closed doors, when the White House strategist met with a federal disaster relief official contemplating how to respond to the storm. Four days later, Reynolds announced that President Bush would authorize millions of dollars in federal disaster aid for the area.

The timing was perfect: Reynolds broke the news hours after testifying before the House Ethics Committee about his role in the Mark Foley sex scandal -- knocking reports on the scandal out of the spotlight.

Reynolds' fate Nov. 7 could be a bellwether for Republicans in the Northeast -- in the midterm election as well as the long term. And his poll numbers crashed after revelations that he had known about suspicious e-mails the former Florida congressman had sent to male congressional pages. In the wake of the announcement about federal aid, a survey by a Buffalo television station showed Reynolds regaining a narrow lead over Democrat Jack Davis.

The White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will provide the funds, say Rove exerted no influence on the decision to grant relief or on the timing of the announcement.

"The stars were aligned. It was a coincidence," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

As the midterm campaign enters the homestretch, the GOP congressional juggernaut that has dominated national politics for more than a decade may be over. Polls show Democrats extending their leads in pivotal races across the country. But the man largely responsible for the Republicans' glory days -- and arguably still the most powerful political operative in the United States -- is far from discouraged.

A three-part plan

Instead, Rove is giving a virtuoso performance designed to prevent the Democrats from taking control of the House and Senate or, if that is no longer possible, to hold down the size of the Democratic victory to make it easier for the GOP to come back in 2008. His plan is three-pronged: to reenergize any conservatives who may be flagging; to make sure the GOP's carefully constructed campaign apparatus is functioning at peak efficiency; and to put the resources of the federal government to use for political gain.

In terms of the third prong, signs of the maestro at work are visible in Buffalo and beyond.

In Missouri, Sen. Jim Talent is struggling to retain a seat that is considered vital to maintaining the GOP's Senate majority.

Talent, whose mother died of breast cancer, has made support for fighting the disease an element in his campaign. Recently, Rove's deputies arranged for First Lady Laura Bush to appear with Talent to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Once a year, the National Park Service bathes the soaring Gateway Arch that dominates downtown St. Louis in pink light -- the signature color of the breast cancer awareness campaign. This year, the pink lighting coincided with Laura Bush's visit. The White House says it encouraged the action.

Similarly, the Transportation Department, responding to White House prodding, dispatched the federal highway administrator to Columbus, Ohio, last week to announce grants for a transportation hub to facilitate moving freight among air, rail and highway carriers. The event was designed, an administration official said, to boost prospects for Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, the No. 4 Republican in the House, who is trailing her opponent.

And when environmentalists from the San Francisco Bay Area sharpened their attacks on Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Resources Committee, the White House political office arranged for President Bush to stop in his district to sign legislation protecting wetlands -- with Pombo standing by his side.

On Tuesday, Rove used the White House itself to fire up the base, setting up a tent on the lawn for Cabinet secretaries and other officials to deliver the GOP's hard-edged message on the dangers of a Democratic triumph to 42 generally sympathetic radio talk show hosts who could pass the message on to millions of conservative listeners.

Rove gave interviews to 12 of the radio commentators.

Recruiting an army

This week, Rove and his staff will turn to their endgame.

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