GOP Officials Upbeat at Winter Meeting

Republican officials met in Washington this week at a difficult moment for the GOP. But But senior party figures — presidential adviser Karl Rove and RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman among them — took an optimistic tone.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Here at home, the 2006 election year is under way, and Republicans gathered this week in Washington for their winter party. They heard from party chairman Ken Mehlman and also from Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser. Mr. Rove has been keeping a relatively low profile these days while he is under investigation in the CIA leak case. Just as he did before the last mid-term election in 2002, Mr. Rove signaled that Republicans would make national security and the War on Terrorism an issue in the upcoming Congressional elections.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

Karl Rove may still be uncertain about his status in the investigation over who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, but he had no doubts about the issues that Republicans should run on this fall. First and foremost, he suggested, terrorism.

Mr. KARL ROVE (White House Adviser): The United State faces a ruthless enemy, and we need a commander-in-chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment America finds itself in. President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats.

LIASSON: In 2002, President Bush helped Republicans win House and Senate seats by attacking Democrats for their votes against legislation to create the Homeland Security Department.

Yesterday, Rove criticized Democrats for advocating what he called a cut-and-run strategy in Iraq, their opposition to the Patriot Act, and their disagreement with the president's program of warrantless domestic wiretaps to track down members of al-Qaeda.

Mr. ROVE: Republicans have a post-9/11 view of the world, and Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world. That doesn't make them unpatriotic. Not at all. But it does make them wrong, wrong, deeply and profoundly and consistently.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean responded to those comments, calling Rove's remarks unpatriotic and wrong.

Rove went on to cite the courts as another election year issue, saying Democrats were mean-spirited and small-minded in their questioning of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. And he said Republicans should proudly run on the economy and tax cuts.

It was to left party chair Ken Melman to confront the issue that has many Republicans in Washington and around the country nervous: the ongoing corruption scandals in Congress.

Mr. KEN MELMAN (Chairman, Republican National Committee): One of the oldest lessons in history is that power corrupts. As Republican chairman, I am proud of my party, and I am loyal to the members of our party, but if Republicans are guilty of illegal or inappropriate behavior, then they should pay the price, and they should suffer the consequences.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Outside the ballroom where Rove and Melman spoke, vendors were selling all manner of elephant knickknacks.

And Ray Hoffmann, state party chair from Iowa, was reflecting on the impact of the corruption scandals. In Iowa, he said, there is none.

Mr. RAY HOFFMANN (Iowa State Chairman, Republican National Committee): I hadn't noticed that at all, you know. Will (ph) and I, well, we're so busy right now trying to get the next governor to be a Republican, so that's on my agenda. Money's come in as expected, sometimes actually, a little bit better than we thought. So we're right on target on all the things we like to do. So no, don't see it at all.

LIASSON: Of course, Iowa has famously clean politics. And of course, Republicans there are paying much more attention to the 2008 presidential hopefuls already flocking to their state.

But in Ohio, where the state Republican Party is enmeshed in corruption scandals of its own, party chair Bob Bennett said he was looking forward to a strong reform package coming out of Congress.

Mr. ROBERT T. BENNETT (Ohio State Chairman, Republican National Committee): The voters will always reward you when you clean up your own house if you have a few bad apples. And I think that, you know, the scandal, any scandals that are taking place in Washington that touch any Republicans ought to be prosecuted at the fullest extent of the law, and when that's done, they ought to be incarcerated, and you move on from that.

You know, there's an old adage in politics that I can take care of my enemies, but only God can protect me from my friends, and that's what we're going through right now.

LIASSON: It will be many months before voters turn their attention to the mid-term elections, but for the incumbent Republicans, it's shaping up to be a year of offense on terrorism and defense on ethics.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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