Rallying the Base

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Wheeling, West Virginia, has everything President Bush likes in a trip. It's only a 50-minute flight from Washington — perfect for a commander-in-chief famous for turning in early. What's more, this media market reaches audiences in three states with competitive Senate races this year — West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio — something the White House was mindful of when it chose this venue. Bush used his town hall meeting to build support for the war in Iraq, telling more than 2,000 people that he was optimistic and had a plan for victory. Just in case anyone was in doubt, the stage was festooned with banners that said ..."Plan for Victory."

The event was part of Bush's media blitz to win support for his policies in Iraq. But it was also showed how hard the White House is trying to build back its support by going after its conservative base. When a president's support declines to such low levels, the first and easiest people you want to win back are those who once supported you. Bush faced a similar situation last September over the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, a nomination that came as a big disappointment to conservatives, who forced her withdrawal. Bush's base was rallied with the nomination of Samuel Alito to take her place.

The White House hopes to galvanize the faithful once more. How? First, by portraying the Democrats as radical. The Republican National Committee has been peppering reporters with e-mails about Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat and likely 2008 presidential contender, who wants to censure the president for his allowing the National Security Agency to monitor domestic calls. This week, the RNC even put up money for radio ads to denounce Feingold. The White House still believes that the NSA program is a winner, and they are especially tickled that Feingold has called it an issue worthy of censure, which they think is a dramatic overreach and will rally the base. "This is a gift," says one former Administration official. Senate Democrats seem to recognize this, too; only a handful have shown any interest in supporting Feingold's measure.

The White House is also chiding the major television and print outlets for their coverage of the Iraq conflict, thereby tapping into the disdain many conservatives share for the MSM, or mainstream media. Bush took a number of shots at the press this week for focusing on bad news, to the exclusion of more positive developments. He was beaten to the punch in Wheeling when the wife of an Army broadcaster complained that she could not get any media to pick up her husband's stories of successful reconstruction efforts in Iraq. The audience, in response, gave Bush a standing ovation.

Ever mindful of keeping its Christian evangelical base animated, the President made it a point at his town meeting in Wheeling to bring up the case of the Afghan citizen who is on trial for having converted from Islam to Christianity. "We expect [the Afghan government] to honor the universal principle of freedom," he told the audience. "I'm troubled when I hear, deeply troubled when I hear, the fact that a person who converted away from Islam may be held to account." To be fair, Bush's motives in denouncing the sentence are not purely political. He bristles at the intolerance on display, as have other world leaders, including the prime ministers of Germany and Italy. But Bush's outrage has a political benefit with an important constituency.

Given the difficulties the president is having in Iraq, all this campaigning to the public at large and the base in particular may be fruitless. Indeed, Bush may have made things worse during his press conference; his intimation that American troops would be in Iraq after he leaves office in 2009 led to some furious backpedaling by the White House. Bush needs to excite his conservative allies, but first he has to stop making any more mistakes like that.