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The GOP Mood in Memphis

By Tom Bevan

Given the current difficulties of President Bush and Republicans in Congress, I wasn't sure what to expect when I headed down to cover the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis last weekend. Would there be intense fear and loathing on display among the 1,800 delegates? Would it be a marathon of hand-wringing and apoplexy or a case study in denial?

The answer, as it turned out, was none of the above. There were signs of nervousness and expressions of concern, to be sure. Party leaders and activists recognize the unfavorable political atmosphere swirling in the air at the moment and they also know their history: every two-term Republican President in the modern era has suffered losses in the sixth-year midterm elections (Eisenhower in '58, Nixon in '74 and Reagan in '86).

Juxtaposed with this anxiety, however, was an underlying sense of confidence that the GOP majority isn't unraveling or headed for certain doom this November.

One source of confidence among this group is the simple but firm belief that "conservatism sells." This may sound like a mindless platitude to some, but remember, the delegates attending the conference were almost all from the South, a place where the GOP has been on a bit of a winning streak lately - to put it mildly. In fact, the current Republican majority in Congress is built on the back of the transformational success the GOP has enjoyed in the South over the last thirty plus years: in 1972 there were only 8 Republican Senators and 33 Republican House members from the South. Today those numbers are 24 and 97, respectively. A record like that justifies a certain amount of confidence.

Another related factor is that Republicans - not just in the South but in the country in general - have become increasingly confident in their ability to turn out voters, which is especially crucial in an off year midterm. In 2002 the GOP unveiled their "72-hour plan", a program designed to achieve maximum voter contact in the three days leading up to the election. The result: historic midterm gains for the party of a first-term president.

Republicans did it again in 2004. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into organizing and voter registration drives all across the country by Democrats and liberal interest groups, Republicans deployed an army of volunteers to make targeted, personal contacts and get people to the polls on election day. The result: in a presidential election with the largest voter turnout since 1968, John Kerry received eight million more votes than Al Gore got in 2000 but still lost to President Bush by three million votes.

Add the advantages of incumbency to this past electoral success and you can see why the folks gathered in Memphis weren't in panic mode or ready to commit hari kari - at least not yet. Despite the danger posed by corruption in Washington and public anxiety over Iraq, the GOP delegates believe their party's core messages of lower taxes, smaller government, and a strong national defense will continue to resonate with the public -- especially when compared to the alternatives offered by the other party.

That brings me to the other reason GOP activists aren't overly fearful about being swept out of power in November: Democratic incompetence. Republicans continue to see themselves as blessed by an opposition both bereft of ideas and out of touch with large portions of the country.

"I'm happy every time I see Howard Dean on TV," Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota told the crowd on Friday. "He lathers up his radical base and turns off mainstream America."

The following morning Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had similar words of praise for another leading Democrat. "I'd like to publicly thank Ted Kennedy for being the gift that keeps on giving," said Graham, adding, "I'm signing him up for the prescription drug benefit myself."

Clearly, the election in November is not a national referendum but a collection of individual races that will be predominantly decided by local issues and personalities. Still, Republicans continue to believe that the national image of the Democratic party works in their favor and that America is simply unwilling to put Nancy Pelosi two heartbeats away from the presidency or to put the country's national security into the hands of the party headed by Howard Dean.

A lot can change in the coming months, but one thing seemed certain as the delegates left town on Sunday and headed back home: whatever the result for the GOP on election day, it won't be for a lack of effort by activists on the ground.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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