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Why Is This GOP Strategist Smiling?

By David Broder

The day had been full of ominous warnings. Polls showed the Republicans on the losing side of almost every issue and the 2008 presidential race -- and now they're forced to defend a controversial veto of a popular children's health bill.

But Tom Cole, the 58-year-old Oklahoma representative who this year took on the responsibility for running the GOP's congressional campaign, was remarkably sanguine -- considering.

He had been reading about the Post-ABC News poll showing that Hillary Rodham Clinton had established a commanding lead for the Democratic presidential nomination and was beating Rudy Giuliani, the current Republican front-runner, 51 percent to 43 percent in a hypothetical matchup.

The same poll showed President Bush's approval rating at 33 percent, equaling his historic low, and congressional Republicans' even lower, at 29 percent, the lowest ever recorded for them. Democrats are trusted more than Republicans when it comes to handling Iraq, health care, the economy and the federal budget, the poll said, and the two parties are tied on terrorism -- supposedly the Republicans' strong suit.

So how could he be reasonably satisfied with his party's prospects? The answer: The Democrats are also looking like dogs.

The approval score for their party in Congress has sunk to 38 percent -- down 10 points since a similar poll taken just before the 2006 election that gave the Democrats their first congressional majority since 1994.

Congress as a whole rated only 29 percent approval, down 14 points from its start in January. The reason: People think it has been spinning its wheels. By 82 percent to 16 percent, those polled said it has accomplished little or nothing this year. Half blame Bush and the Republicans; a quarter, the Democrats; and a separate fifth, both parties.

Cole, who admits Republicans hurt themselves in 2006 with scandals and out-of-control spending, said the poll confirmed for him a comment he heard this week from a Republican colleague. Speaking of the Democrats, he said, "My God, they're dragging themselves down to our level."

It all adds up, Cole said, to a political environment reminiscent of 1992 -- a tough year for entrenched incumbents of both parties who suddenly saw their margins shrink or disappear. "The American people are rising up in disgust," Cole said, "and incumbents will pay. It's not anti-Republican anymore. It's anti-Washington."

Cole argues that the House Democratic leadership has made a strategic error by wielding its narrow majority to craft partisan bills that invite a Bush veto. That was the case with several resolutions to shorten the Iraq war, and it will be the case later this fall with a series of appropriations bills. Polarization is exactly what the voters hate, Cole said; they are looking for cooperation and agreement.

But the crucial question at the moment, politically, is Bush's veto of the SCHIP bill -- the $35 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The Post poll found 72 percent approval for this measure, which would add 4 million children to the ranks of the insured.

Cole claims that Republicans will be protected by asserting that they favor the concept and are prepared to support a less expensive compromise. "All of us are for the program," he said, "but we can't support a bad bill."

I think that is a tough sell politically. But I'm more persuaded by his argument that Republicans have little to fear from a Hillary Clinton candidacy. "That is no landslide election," he said. "The Republican nominee, whoever he is, wins at least 43, 44, 45 percent against her, and that gives us a base for congressional races.

"She is not going to carry Georgia or Kansas or Texas, and we have good candidates running against shaky Democrats in every one of those states. There are Democrats sitting in 61 districts that Bush carried; 47 that he carried twice. We are on the offensive in those districts," he said.

That may seem implausible, but Cole has history on his side. In 1992, as he notes, incumbents were hammered, 24 of them losing in November, 17 others failing in their primaries. The Republicans achieved a net gain of 10 House seats that year, a feather in the cap of the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Tom Cole. Now, no longer a hired staff man but the chairman, Cole faces a familiar challenge. In 1992, the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton for president -- and he won. But his party, nonetheless, lost House seats. Cole is out to make history repeat itself.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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