Wolffe and Bailey: Karl Rove Tries to Shore Up GOP in Ohio

With just over three months until Election Day, White House political adviser Karl Rove hit the campaign trail Tuesday in Ohio, hoping to rev up voters in a state where polls show President George W. Bush and the GOP is in real trouble. Bush’s top political aide was the guest of honor at a $100-a-plate luncheon in Columbus to benefit county parties in central Ohio, a state that is viewed as ground zero in the GOP’s attempts to maintain control of Congress.

A poll released over the weekend showed that Sen. Mike DeWine , a moderate Republican who has notably distanced himself from Bush on the campaign trail, is running 8 percentage points behind his Democratic opponent, Rep. Sherrod Brown. Other Ohio Republicans are in trouble as well, including GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, who is running 20 points behind Democrat Ted Strickland. Bush, whose approval ratings linger in the low 30s in the state, is scheduled to campaign for Blackwell in Ohio next week.

Yet Rove insisted Tuesday he wasn’t worried, telling supporters that he believes the midterm matchups there and throughout the country are still winnable for the GOP. His talking points were the same: Republicans will win on what will be the two determining issues this fall, the economy and national security. “My message to you is, you did it in ’04,” Rove told the crowd of about 350. “You’ve got the tools, you’ve got the enthusiasm, you’ve got the intensity. Now it’s time to bring it back and do it again in 2006.”

There’s only one problem with Rove’s argument: polls show a majority of Americans still don’t give Bush or his party credit for the economy, while the president’s ratings on his handling of terrorism and national security have dipped in recent weeks. The latest Gallup poll released Tuesday shows that only 39 percent of those surveyed approve of Bush’s handling of the economy—no improvement over poll numbers posted earlier this year. When asked in a recent Gallup survey which party would better handle economic issues, 53 percent of those polled indicated the Democrats.

Bush has also taken a hit when it comes to how Americans view his handling of terrorism and national security. The Gallup poll found his approval rating on his handling of terrorism dropped four points since June, to 47 percent. Americans who approve of the administration’s handling of Iraq remained virtually unchanged at 35 percent. On a related note, the survey found that 37 percent of those surveyed approve of how Bush is handling the situation in the Middle East—though more than two thirds of those polled said they believe the administration “does not” have a “clear and well-thought-out policy.”

A bright spot for the White House: Bush's overall approval rating seems to have leveled out, currently ranked at about 37 percent, according to Gallup. That number is down from Bush's high of 43 percent last January, but up from the dismal 31 percent approval rating recorded in early May.

‘Frank’ Talk With Iraq’s P.M.

Sometimes the official White House transcript doesn’t fully express what has transpired between President Bush and a foreign counterpart. Sometimes you have to compare and contrast the leaders’ words to get a full picture, even though the leaders are standing side by side.

That was certainly the case when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited the White House on Tuesday, and most probably will be true again when Britain’s Tony Blair visits Friday. This is a week for divining meanings at the White House, as the world’s leaders continue to talk around the subject of the Middle East crisis.

First, the exchange with the Iraqi prime minister: in Tuesday’s press conference, President Bush tersely described his private conversation with Maliki as “a frank exchange of views.” Translation of “frank”: this used to be a tactful phrase, but it has become such a cliché that it means the kind of exchange that friends don’t usually have.

Bush’s account goes like this: “I listened closely to the prime minister, and I valued a chance to hear his perspective.” Translation of “listened closely”: his lips were moving but I didn’t agree with him.

Bush agreed with Maliki about what he called “the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon,” and he told him about his plans for $30 million in humanitarian aid to the Lebanese. Then Bush let rip with his own priorities. “I told him I support a sustainable ceasefire that will bring about an end to violence,” he said, “and I talked about the importance of strengthening the Lebanese government and supporting the Lebanese people.” Translation of “sustainable ceasefire”: the defeat or disarmament of Hizbullah.

The Iraqi prime minister confirmed that he talked first about Lebanese civilians. But he went on to clarify the reason for the frank exchange: “I also emphasized the importance of immediate ceasefire.” Translation of “immediate ceasefire”: Israel must stop its military operations now.

This is not a mere semantic debate. The timing of a ceasefire is precisely what annoyed President Bush so deeply during his open mic moment at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. Bush believes that peace is only possible once Hizbullah is neutralized. He considers calls for a ceasefire, like those of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as exercises in self-delusion.

Yet the ceasefire question impacts other allies—not just the U.N. and some Arab nations. France, which has worked closely with the United States on Lebanon for the last year, agreed to the G8 summit’s sequence of events to end the crisis: first an end to Hizbullah’s attacks, then finally a halt to Israel’s military operations. Many diplomats believe that France will be a big contributor to any international peacekeeping force that enters Lebanon to secure the southern region that is now under Hizbullah’s control.

But here again, the ceasefire question is critical. The official spokesman for the French foreign ministry said this week that France would only want to see a peacekeeping force once there was both a ceasefire and a “political agreement” that included the disarming of Hizbullah. Translation: the French will only send troops once the war is over and Hizbullah is committed to peace.

This is the thorniest question for the diplomats gathering in Rome on Wednesday, among them Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She has already said she thinks the force needs to be “robust” and “capable of helping the Lebanese forces” stop Hizbullah from attacking Israel from its base in southern Lebanon. That’s a very different mission from the one the French have in mind.

That kind of dispute over conditions on the ground does not bode well for the rapid creation of an international force. And it does not bode well for Blair, who arrives at the White House on Friday for his second face-to-face session with Bush in less than two weeks. Blair is an enthusiastic advocate for the peacekeeping force, and he has not called for an immediate ceasefire. Instead, speaking alongside Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, he simply said he wanted “the killing to stop on both sides.”

Blair is also under considerable political pressure to look like he’s taking some action to push President Bush toward the role of peacemaker in this crisis. At St. Petersburg, Blair offered to smooth the way for Rice to visit the region. He also calmed down an impatient Bush to resolve the final disputes in the leaders’ joint statement on the crisis.

One recent poll in the U.K. suggests that almost two thirds of British public opinion believes Blair has tied his country too closely to the United States. A similar number thinks that Israel has overreacted to Hizbullah with its military strikes in Lebanon.

To date, Blair’s government has taken the position that the ceasefire needs to be durable and needs to start with Hizbullah ending its rocket attacks on Israel—just like Bush’s position. But if Blair wants to see a peacekeeping force any time soon, he’ll need to go beyond the usual cozy agreement with his friend in the White House. After all, unlike the situation in Iraq (or maybe because of Iraq), both Bush and Blair have ruled out sending their own troops to Lebanon. Can the two allies convince anyone else to commit their soldiers?

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