GOP gains

but also

battles losses

WASHINGTON - Suppose you are Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush's political career and the chief White House strategist. You know Bush won the presidency in 2000 with just one more electoral vote than the minimum requirement of 270, thanks to a 5-4 Supreme Court decision that ended the recounting of ballots in a Florida election so close that it could have given the victory to Al Gore.

Obviously, your main preoccupation is to build a broader base for re-election in 2004 - a safety net against any breach in the combination of Southern, Mountain and Plains states that barely prevailed last time.

Where do you look? First, to California, whose 55 electoral votes, if transferred to the GOP column, would give Bush virtually a lock on a second term. But the California electorate, with its increasing Latino population, its strong abortion-rights and environmental sentiments, is a tough nut to crack. And the Republican nominee for governor, who you hoped would help end the Democrats' winning streak, is not the man you wanted - former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan - but a novice named William Simon Jr., who reinforces all the worrisome GOP stereotypes.

Running against a visibly weakened and broadly unpopular Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, Simon keeps stumbling over his own feet, most recently with a $78 million fraud verdict against his family's investment firm.

If not California, then the margin for safety Rove seeks must almost certainly be found in the band of mega-states between New York and Illinois - only one of which, Ohio, went to Bush in 2000.

Ohio looks good for the GOP this year. Gov. Bob Taft is a strong favorite over underfinanced Cleveland Democrat Tim Hagan; the Democratic Party has just shuffled chairmen; and Taft has struck at the heart of the Democratic coalition by defying his right-wing and picking Columbus City Council member Jennette Bradley, a pro-choice African-American woman, as his candidate for lieutenant governor.

In New York, Gov. George Pataki, whose original base was in the conservative movement, has moved so skillfully into the political center that he has major union support and a commanding lead against either of the Democrats battling in the September primary to oppose him. Despite its normal Democratic leaning, New York might become a possibility for Bush in 2004, Rove thinks.

But if Taft and Pataki represent the kind of base-broadening Rove and Bush practiced in Texas and promised nationally, the other major battleground states, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois, tell a different and discouraging story for the GOP.

New Jersey went Democratic last November, when the GOP rejected a moderate contender and nominated a candidate for governor who was vehemently pro-voucher and anti-abortion, both unpopular stands with suburban women. And now, in all three of the other states, this year's Republican nominees for governor are also to the right of the Bush allies who were in office when he ran two years ago. And all those states could well elect Democratic governors this year.

Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher and Michigan Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus are trailing their Democratic opponents by 15, 13 and 22 points, respectively, in the latest polls. Bush lost their states by much smaller margins in 2000, despite the help their Republican predecessors, now departed or soon to leave, were able to give him.

As Rove well knows, senators and representatives can assist the president on policy fights in Washington, but governors are the ones whose political organizations are much more potent at election time.

Yet, in all three of these states, the White House watched passively as conservative forces squeezed out more moderate contenders for the nomination - pro-choice women in Illinois and Pennsylvania, a pro-choice physician-legislator in Michigan.

In a comment that applies to Fisher and Ryan as well as to Posthumus, Michigan state Sen. Joe Schwarz, who lost in last Tuesday's primary, asked, "How can you hope to win a state like ours if you oppose a woman's right to abortion even in cases of rape and incest?"

As Schwarz noted, "Bush lost Oakland County (the quintessential Detroit suburbs) twice in 2000, first to John McCain (Schwarz's candidate) and then to Al Gore." He lost Pennsylvania by failing to crack the Philadelphia suburbs and Illinois, where he did poorly in the Chicago suburbs.

If you were Karl Rove, you' d think you would be worrying how to get those suburban women back. But under Bush - whose words and actions encourage anti-abortion forces and backers of school vouchers - the party in many of the battleground states continues to antagonize them on its rightward march.

And that leaves little margin for error in 2004.

David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. His address is 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.

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