Can Ensign turn the tide?

Donald Lambro

3/29/2007 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

John Ensign, the new Senate Republican campaign chairman, knows the odds are against him in 2008 when at least five GOP seats are vulnerable, versus one or two for the Democrats.

He said as much in a wide-ranging interview in which he delivered a withering political critique of his party's core problems, telling me the GOP had lost its "heart and soul."

But the upbeat, high-energy Nevada senator, who has taken a tough job few, if any, of his colleagues wanted, laid out an aggressive candidate-recruitment effort and campaign strategy that has put senior White House political strategist Karl Rove at the center of his operations.

"We meet with Karl Rove at the White House regularly," Ensign said. "I think Karl is one of the most brilliant political minds in the country. I take advantage of that."

But even with Rove's influential guiding hand, this election cycle does not look good for Republicans when the issue of the Iraq war will loom even larger than it did in 2006, the year the GOP lost six seats and control of the Senate.

A spate of new scandals has only added to its troubles, from the U.S. attorney firings to acknowledged abuses in the FBI's information-gathering system in the war on terror to rundown-housing problems at Walter Reed Army Hospital that went uncorrected.

Ensign's problem: 21 Republican seats will be at stake next year but only 12 for the Democrats, most of which look rock-solid safe. "The odds are we are going to have more risks than they will, and it turns out that we do have more risks," he said.

He ticked off five Republican seats -- in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon and New Hampshire -- that are in danger. The only two Democrats on the watch list: South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson who is still recovering from a stroke, and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu who squeaked into a second term with 52 percent of the vote.

Since taking the helm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he said he has "cleaned the place out," cutting its bureaucracy, hiring a new fund-raising team, replacing its outdated computer system and asking senators to get more involved in raising money for the NRSC, recruitment and political outreach. Ensign said Senate Republicans were outflanked last year when Senate Democratic campaign chairman Chuck Schumer "took (fund-raising) to a new level and kind of caught everybody (here) off guard" - out-raising the NRSC by $31 million.

He declined to blame his predecessor, North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who had candidate and fund-raising troubles. The GOP's problems were of its own making, he said. "I'm not going to go back and analyze what she did right or wrong. Those were circumstances beyond her control." The reasons for the party's losses run deeper than that. "Republicans lost their way. We worried about holding power instead of why we were in power," he told me.

"In 1994, I was elected as part of the Republican revolution that came in for a reason. Fiscal responsibility meant something. What happened over the years is that maintaining our committee chairmanships, maintaining our majority, figuring out how to get re-elected, became more important than why we were in control in the first place," he said.

"We were elected to govern as Republicans and we lost our way; the voters saw little difference between us and the Democrats. We need to get the heart and soul back in our party."

He acknowledged the war, if it's still raging this time next year, will be a huge problem for the GOP's most vulnerable senators in states trending Democratic. Notably, he advised GOP candidates, torn between defending President Bush's war effort or getting out, to "vote their conscience" and forget about "what is the best political calculation for how I should vote." "You had better search your heart and soul for what you think is the right thing to do on this and take politics out of it," he said.

That sounds like he is telling incumbents they are free to break with the administration if that's what they believe and will help them survive the Democrats' expected antiwar offensive next year. He denied that, saying incumbents must decide what is "the right vote for the interests of the United States, the interest of our troops."

One of the first things he did when he took over, he said, was to "put together lessons learned from the last campaign, from the people who had won and lost. Those sessions were incredibly valuable" in charting a new campaign strategy.

Meantime, he is a hands-on chairman who said he likes to "think outside the box" and that he will be doing things very differently this year and next, to minimize any GOP losses.

It isn't enough anymore to "point out what Democrats are doing wrong," he said. "You have to point out what you are for, you have to stand for something."