Cover Story

AIR FORCE WON

President Bush's relentless campaigning paid off, leaving Democrats in his jet wash

Issue: "The Bush mandate," Nov. 16, 2002

By all accounts, George W. Bush had just sat down to dinner at the White House when he received the first good news of the night: His brother Jeb was looking like a shoo-in for a second term as Florida's governor. If that whetted the president's appetite for the taste of political victory, he was not to be disappointed. Throughout the night, Republicans served up one stunning win after another, chewing up opponents at every level on the way to a historic power shift in Washington.

The sheer size of the GOP wave caught everyone-including the president-by surprise. Normally in bed before 10 p.m., President Bush announced he'd stay up until he knew the outcome in Tallahassee, a race the Democrats had called their No. 1 priority anywhere in the country. Late polls suggested the younger Bush was vulnerable, and a loss would have been a tremendous embarrassment to the White House.

But instead of a long night of nail-biting, the president stayed up into the wee small hours placing congratulatory phone calls to GOP winners across the country. More than any other president in history, Mr. Bush had wagered an enormous amount of his own political capital by campaigning in 23 states this mid-term election. Again and again he asked voters to show their support for his agenda by backing his local surrogates. Had he failed to deliver after almost two weeks of non-stop campaigning, emboldened Democrats would have seen Mr. Bush as politically vulnerable, further weakening the prospects for his legislative agenda in the final two years of his term.

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Florida was the first sign that the president's gamble had paid off. Television commentators could only blink in surprise at Jeb Bush's overwhelming margin of victory. This race was supposed to take hours-perhaps days-to call. If the president's ceaseless campaigning worked so well in Florida, could it be a sign of things to come?

All eyes quickly turned to the Senate, where Republicans needed to pick up a single seat to recapture the majority. Pundits were still talking about the GOP's easy Florida win when they got another jolt: Elizabeth Dole, in a supposedly tight Senate contest in North Carolina, was posting blow-out numbers against Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton administration official. Like Florida, the race was over almost as soon as the counting began.

Democratic pundits were getting visibly nervous. Though they continued to insist a Republican takeover in the Senate was a long shot, the early numbers suggested otherwise. In Georgia, Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss maintained a consistent lead over incumbent Democratic Sen. Max Cleland as results trickled in. The picture was much the same in New Hampshire, where Democrats had high hopes of picking up an open Republican seat. Their candidate, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, trailed GOP Rep. John Sununu throughout the early evening. Democrats talked bravely of a come-from-behind win, but one by one the state's more liberal cities were fully counted, while rural districts continued to deliver big numbers to the Republicans.

At 10:15 p.m. (all times Eastern), an unusually cautious Associated Press declared New Hampshire for the GOP, obliterating Democrats' hopes of a pickup in the East. Thirty minutes later the news became even worse as Georgia, too, was called for the Republicans. Instead of leaving the Eastern time zone with the two-seat pickup they'd hoped for, Democrats were now saddled with an unexpected loss. To maintain control of the Senate, they'd have to take a Republican-held seat in the all-important Midwest. But the lesson from the East Coast looked grim: Almost everywhere that Air Force One had touched down in the campaign's final days, GOP poll numbers had taken off. If the trend continued in states like Missouri and Minnesota, where Mr. Bush had practically set up residence, the Democratic Party was headed into exile.

Democrats found a glimmer of hope at 11:00 p.m., when Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson fell to Mark Pryor in Arkansas. By ousting a Republican incumbent, Democrats had erased the advantage gained by the GOP in Georgia. With no further turnovers, the Democrats would maintain their one-vote control of the Senate.

Still, they were clearly on the defensive: By midnight, only four races remained too close to call, and embattled Democrats held three of them. Returns in the four Senate races were tantalizingly slow, but other statewide contests hinted at Democratic weakness. In Minnesota, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Tim Pawlenty led his Democratic rival by double digits, signaling potential trouble for Walter Mondale. In Colorado, by contrast, Sen. Wayne Allard took comfort in a huge lead by Gov. Bill Owen, a fellow Republican.

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