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Analysis: Playing to win could be a loser for GOP

Charles Babington

Can a strategy that helps Republicans get re-elected be bad for their party?

Some politicians think so, and they point to House Republicans' solid opposition to President Barack Obama's economic recovery plans as a good test.

The GOP's united stand against the Democratic president seems to play well in conservative districts. But it could hurt their party's national image and its efforts to regain control in Washington.

Democrats cite polls showing considerably higher support for Obama and his economic policies than for the House Republicans who twice voted unanimously against his $787 billion stimulus package, the heart of his economic agenda. Only three GOP senators backed the bill, and congressional Republicans now are condemning Obama's budget proposal with equal fervor.

Those polls survey national audiences, however. House Republicans are responding to much smaller constituencies — those in their districts. Many are of those districts are solidly conservative, just as many Democrats' districts are solidly liberal.

House Republicans say their constituents support their opposition to Obama, and that's their chief political concern.

"Congressmen think of the world in terms of their districts, not in terms of the national mood," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who formerly oversaw House GOP campaign efforts.

But the national mood is vitally important to Republicans in their bid to retake the White House or reverse their party's minority status in the House and Senate. Republicans hold 178 House seats to the Democrats' 257. Their give-no-quarter approach, which they are now applying to Obama's budget proposals, provides a murky blueprint for closing the gap.

"I don't think the strategy is going to work," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat whose district is heavily liberal. Congressional Republicans underestimate Obama's popularity, which is likely to endure despite the huge problems facing the country, he said.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats seem to be from different planets when discussing the economic crisis.

Democrats feel certain that Americans want vigorous government action to recharge the economy and to stop the frightening disappearance of jobs. Republicans seem just as convinced that voters abhor the heavy spending and eventual tax increases (even if they affect only high-income people) envisioned in Obama's stimulus and budget plans.

"The more people realize how bad some of those programs are, the better we are looking," said GOP Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia.

Kingston, elected to the House nine times, has a good feel for his Savannah-based district. But partly because of widespread gerrymandering when House districts are redrawn each decade, many districts are much more conservative or much more liberal than the overall electorate. For now, at least, the national average leans toward Obama.

In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, about three-fourths of those questioned said Obama was trying to be bipartisan. Almost as many faulted the response of Republican officials, which was seen as politically motivated.

Republicans are unfazed.

"I don't believe those polls," said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. "The stimulus was unpopular with rank-and-file Americans of all stripes. In the hinterlands, it's not popular."

Some Republicans are encouraged by signs that Obama's economic proposals are less popular than the man himself, and that Democratic leaders in Congress are even less popular. Many GOP House members tried to tie the stimulus package to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., even though Obama embraced it as his own.

"If we were fighting Obama, it would be a lot more difficult," Kingston said. "But I think people understand that with Obama come his friends, and Pelosi and Reid are a huge problem."

Republican strategist Eddie Mahe agrees. He says the party's strong stand against the Democrats' plans is rallying a conservative base that became disgusted with high-spending practices when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress.

"In this business," Mahe said, "the first thing you'd better do is protect your base."

Democratic activists doubt the approach will work as a national strategy. Kingston, Wamp and other conservatives may understand how to win elections in their right-leaning districts, these Democrats say. But they may be walking their party down a path of long-term minority status.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers the White House for The Associated Press.

The Associated Press