Even though the Republicans will argue, again today, that John Kerry’s joke-telling ineptitude is a momentous national issue, and even though they still officially exude optimism about holding both the House and Senate in Tuesday’s elections, it might be wise to remember the political adage that was well-coined four decades ago by Nixon attorney general John Mitchell:
“Watch what we do, not what we say.”
President Bush and his Republican strategists may be saying for public consumption that the ’06 elections look bullish for the GOP – indeed, Bush is saying that even the Iraq war looks bullish, given his claim last week that “absolutely, we are winning” – but we would all be well advised to look past the words, and assess what they are actually doing.
The best way to really gauge the Bush team’s thinking is simply to track the president’s physical movements along the campaign trail. Here is the Bush itinerary, a rundown of his stump appearances over a span of six days:
Two days ago, he was in Texas and Georgia.
Today, he is in Montana and Nevada.
Tomorrow, he is due in Missouri and Iowa.
Saturday, he is expected in Colorado.
Sunday, he is expected in Kansas.
Spot the pattern yet? Every single pit stop on the Bush tour is in a “red” state that voted for Bush in 2004. At every stop, either he will be defending Republican turf generally, or seeking to salvage the prospects of imperiled Republican incumbents.
For instance, in a normal political year, there would be absolutely no need for a Republican president to spend time, during the final week of a campaign, deep in the heart of his own home state. But because Tom DeLay got himself into criminal trouble and felt compelled to cough up his congressional seat, and because –amazingly enough – a Democrat (Nick Lampson) might actually win the seat down in Sugarland, Texas, the president from Texas felt compelled to stop there and try to put his proverbial finger in the dike.
Ditto Montana, today. Montana hasn’t voted Democratic in a presidential race in more than 40 years, yet Bush has to spend time there to shore up the endangered Republican senator Conrad Burns, a potential casualty of the Jack Abramoff scandal. Tomorrow, Bush will need to stop in Missouri, to shore up the endangered Republican senator Jim Talent, whom swing voters may judge to be on the wrong side of the stem cell issue.
And, in perhaps the most vivid demonstration of the GOP’s dire straits, plans are afoot to dispatch Bush to Kansas, to spend the final Sunday of the campaign helping to shore up a five-term Republican congressman, Jim Ryun, who is locked in a tight race with a Democratic challenger whom Ryan handily defeated two years ago.
Kansas is a deeply red state where Democrats virtually never win federal elections. So what has changed since 2004? GOP Kansas Senator Sam Brownback offered his diagnosis the other day: “I think what you're seeing is a lot of watching and concern about the war in Iraq. Without that, I don't think that this election cycle is what it is.”
So while the Bush team can talk all it wants about election day optimism, it is not acting optimistic. In the field, it is playing defense. Bush is not spending time invading the opposition’s turf, or traveling to traditionally Republican-leaning congressional districts, such as the suburbs of Philadelphia (where the GOP candidates don't want him around anyway). Rather, all his final week actions signal that the Bush team is back on its heels, preoccupied mostly with staving off disaster.
In other words, it’s likely that their internal polling numbers mirror the latest non-partisan polling stats. The respected Washington analyst Charlie Cook, looking at his own latest figures, stated flatly yesterday that, in the House, “it would take a miracle for the GOP to hold onto their majority.” He also says, with regards to the Senate, “the best case scenario” is that the Republicans will barely hold onto the chamber.
Bush is also spending all his time in red states because the religious conservative base is still deemed to be insufficiently motivated. The latest CBS-New York Times poll, released this morning, has one eye-opening stat: self-described evangelicals, when asked whether they favor a Democratic or Republican congressional candidate, opt for the Democrat by 42 to 41 percent. This may help explain why the GOP and its conservative allies are working so hard to keep the Kerry gaffe alive.
So watch that Bush itinerary. If the president suddenly scraps his weekend schedule and flies into blue states, you can bet that the national mood, as reflected in the internal polling numbers, has shifted in some dramatic fashion. But if, for most voters (particularly independents, who at last check still see this election as a referendum on Bush’s war stewardship), this election ultimately is viewed as a choice between a failed ’04 candidate who can’t tell a joke, and an ’06 commander-in-chief who can’t run a war, then odds are the Democrats still have a fighting chance next Tuesday.
Here's a new report that takes note of the defensive Bush itinerary - and cites some red destinations that had escaped my notice: Florida, Arkansas, and Nebraska.
So I just took a look at Nebraska...and it makes the case all by itself. The 3rd congressional district hasn't elected a Democrat since the era of black & white TV - 46 years, to be exact. The district's voters, two years ago, favored Bush over John Kerry by more than 50 percentage points. The district's registered Republicans outnumber their Democratic counterparts by a margin of 2-1. The big newspaper in Lincoln calls the 3rd "the reddest congressional district in a crimson state."
And yet even here, late polling reportedly shows that the GOP is being pushed hard. It appears that Democratic candidate Scott Kleeb (a rancher by trade, the kind of background much prized in red states by Democratic candidate recruiters) really has a shot at winning. Certainly the Republican National Committee agrees, because it's dumping a ton of TV advertising money on a place that should never need to see an RNC ad. And the Bush team knows the score as well, or else Bush wouldn't be compelled to cool his heels on crimson turf with the clock running out.