New heights of political punch

Quality candidates more than any other single factor contribute to GOP wins gave GOP the edge during Nov. 5 elections

Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2002

It's been amusing to read the various takes on the Republican sweep of the mid-term elections. Yes, polls revealed that there was a George W. "Bush" bounce that came with campaign visits from the popular president. But many of the elections clearly showed that there is also something to be said for fielding superior candidates.

Take the Missouri U.S. Senate race. Republican Jim Talent simply overwhelmed incumbent Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan. Carnahan, who ascended to office after the tragic death of her husband, Sen. Mel Carnahan, was unable to articulate a campaignmessage.

The affable Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., was just that -- affable -- and only that in his race for re-election against his GOP opponent, Congressman Saxby Chambliss. The Repub-lican used a senatorial bearing and a firm grasp of the issues to dismantle Cleland in their last televised debate.

A polished and composed Norm Coleman became the newest Republican senator from Minnesota by overcoming the sympathy for just-deceased Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone, and his high name-ID opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale. Coleman remained calm and composed late in the campaign, even when the Democrats turned Wellstone's memorial service into a sick political rally. That spectacle included the aging Mondale entering the room like a bewildered prizefighter, rather than a grieving and reluctant stand-in.

Whether it was Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, whose notorious inability to improvise in public speaking was ignored by the voters in favor of her vast knowledge and experience, or former Gov. Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, who finally received the place at the national political table that he deserves by winning his Senate race -- it was quality candidates more than any other single factor that pushed the GOP to new heights of political punch on Nov. 5.

And hats off to Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. Tracking polls showed Bush bouncing up and down as the electorate considered media attacks and the viability of his opponent,

Democratic attorney Bill McBride. But in the end, Bush rolled, thanks to visits by his White House brother and to Jeb's own sincerity in debates and media encounters.

Now attention flips back to Jeb's brother. President Bush has successfully defied the adage that the party in control of the White House will stumble in the mid-term elections. But can he sustain this awesome momentum for two more years, when he himself is up for another term?

Take a look at his predecessor. Few would think to compare the two, but consider: Despite mostly economic success under his helm, many Americans viewed President Bill Clinton's policies as fuzzy and too left-of-center. When it came time for him to seek re-election in 1996, it may have been his force of personality that carried the day, rather than passionate belief in any of his specific policies.

As President George W. Bush rounds the corner of his own mid-term, the economy is still chuffing and coughing. A war with Iraq looms in the not-too-distant future. And the ever-present risk of sudden acts of terrorism remains in the back of everyone's mind. The policies to deal with these issues remain hazy. But President Bush has displayed an eerie immunity to these political minefields -- any one of which might cripple a less effective leader.

Which leads back to the comparison with Clinton. Just as Clinton managed to maintain high approval ratings during the worst of times, so too does his successor. Of course, Clinton's "worst of times" were of his own making. Bush's are, for the most part, either inherited or imposed by outside forces.

George W. Bush's warmth and sincerity are the attributes that help him through these treacherous times. His challenge in the months ahead will be to maintain his power and popularity while keeping it all in sober perspective. The Republican Party would be advised to continue operating as if it were still the underdog. GOP leaders should be more circumspect than ever in their statements and actions.

And Bush should keep cultivating the aura of humility that has endeared him to the public. It will help him to stay above the fray, where a forceful president belongs.

Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at

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