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Bush's Handling of War Could Bolster Republican Congressional Chances - 2002-01-22

As George W. Bush enters the second year of his presidency, there is little doubt that Republicans are hoping to use his handling of the war on terrorism to their political advantage in the 2002 congressional elections.

Most political analysts agree on one thing - that the terrorist attacks last September transformed the Bush presidency.

Allan Lichtman is a presidential historian at the American University in Washington. "Then suddenly, we had the tragedy of September 11th and history found the right man for the job," he said. "Bush, this plain spoken, direct, tough Texan, who could focus with great discipline on a very few issues and delegate to great advisers like [Secretary of State] Colin Powell and [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld, seemed perfectly suited to the crisis facing the country and the world," he said.

One of the president's closest political advisors, Karl Rove, touched off a controversy recently when he said Republicans should use Mr. Bush's handling of the war to their political advantage in this year's congressional elections.

Democrats objected, arguing that they have fallen in lockstep behind the president in fighting terrorism and that the issue should not be used against them.

But the new Republican Party Chairman, former Montana Governor Marc Racicot told NBC News "Meet the Press" that Karl Rove was merely stating the obvious about the public's view of the president's response to the events of September 11. "That allowed for the world, including all of us here in the United States of America, to recognize the capacity of this man to lead," he said. "And, quite naturally, that is going to be one of the circumstances that people will take into consideration when they make their judgements about where they are going to vest their confidence. That is what Karl Rove said."

Appearing on the same program, Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe condemned Republican efforts to use the president's handling of the war to their advantage. "Listen, it is said," said Terry McAuliffe. "The Democrats have all come together to support the president in this war on terrorism around the world. We need to come together. This is a time for unity, not disunity."

But political experts say the Democrats are naďve to think Republicans would hold off using what could be their most potent weapon in this year's congressional elections.

Independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg expects that while the president will campaign for Republican congressional candidates this year, he will try to remain above the political fray. "I think the tone of his [campaign] appearances may be different from what they would have been without the events of September," he said. "I would not expect very shrill, partisan, ideological appeals. But I think he will appeal for voters to support Republicans and his agenda. He will talk about his agenda."

But many experts also believe that Mr. Bush's success in directing the war on terrorism alone will not ensure Republican gains in Congress this year or even the president's re-election in 2004.

Once again, presidential historian Allan Lichtman. "We need to know at some time precisely what is the vision that George Bush has for the post-terrorist world," he said. "Secondly, there are many perils at home. One of the great paradoxes of the Bush presidency is while he has achieved enormous consensus, and deservedly so, in foreign and military policy. And not just in the war on terrorism but on, for example, transforming our relations with Russia in some remarkable ways. He is pushing a conservative agenda at home that does not have that same kind of broad public support and could cause him political problems, particularly if he does not get back [Republican control of] the Senate or loses the House [of Representatives] in 2002. And, of course, the economy."

Historically, the party that controls the presidency loses congressional seats in mid-term elections. Control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives hangs in the balance this year. Democrats currently hold a narrow margin in the Senate, while Republicans hold a somewhat larger majority in the House.