As Republicans fix their eyes on the 2004 election, there is a growing sense that their party may be facing a set of opportunities not seen in years.
Not only are they heading into a presidential cycle with a popular incumbent and a sizable fund-raising advantage over any opponent, but the GOP also looks to be in a strong position to expand its majorities in the US Senate and House.
If Republicans are able to pull off across-the-board wins, the outcome could transform the nation's politics. Coming on the heels of the 2002 elections - which gave Republicans outright control of both chambers of Congress and the White House - a wholesale victory in 2004 would solidify the GOP's status as the governing party in Washington, and allow it to leave a clearly defined mark on the policy landscape.
It could even usher in an extended period of Republican dominance, similar to the Democrats' supremacy during Franklin Roosevelt's tenure and beyond. "There will be a lasting effect from this election if [Republicans] hold onto power," says Kayne Robinson, former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.
Certainly, Republicans are taking no chances. They are preparing for a tight presidential contest, raising record sums of money, and devoting more attention than ever to grass-roots and turnout operations.
At the summer meeting this past weekend of the Republican National Committee (RNC), party officials were careful to strike a cautiously optimistic note. While affirming that the 2004 election may afford the party its "greatest opportunity in generations," Ken Mehlman, President Bush's campaign manager, also stressed that it would be "a challenge."
Indeed, recent public opinion polling does have Mr. Bush looking more vulnerable, with his approval ratings below 60 percent. With American casualties mounting in Iraq, Democrats are accusing Bush of misrepresenting intelligence in the run-up to war and bungling the postwar phase.
They are also attacking his management of the economy, highlighting job losses and the return of budget deficits. "I wouldn't want to be running on his economic record," Sen. Jon Corzine (D) of New Jersey said at a recent Monitor breakfast.
And while Bush's popularity among the GOP base has evoked some comparisons to Ronald Reagan, few envision 2004 turning into a landslide along the lines of 1984. Despite all the attention being paid to New York, for example - the city is the site for next year's Republican convention - Thomas Keller, a GOP leader from Westchester County, doubted the president can win his state. "I have to be honest," he said. "It's a long shot.
Still, on other key indicators, Bush looks formidable: A majority of Americans regard him as a strong leader, and, unusual for a Republican president, a majority also believe he cares about people like them.
"He has a touch and a connection with people that not everybody has," said Cindy Phillips, a committeewoman from Mississippi attending the RNC meeting.
The party is banking on what Mr. Mehlman called the "transformative power of this president" to forge a broader coalition of support. Already, in 2002, the GOP made inroads into traditionally Democratic groups, winning larger percentages of the Hispanic vote, sharply reducing the gender gap with women, and actually winning seniors outright.
Bush also demonstrated his willingness to campaign tirelessly on behalf of Republican candidates, something likely to continue in 2004. Many believe Bush's popularity will help propel Republicans nationwide into office with him.
"President Bush at the top of any ticket helps any candidate," asserted Kay Kellogg Katz, a GOP state representative from Louisiana, who attended the RNC meeting in a blue, denim shirt studded with rhinestone elephants.
But even if Bush proves not to have political coattails, the 2004 congressional map may well favor the GOP. In the Senate, Demo-crats will be defending 19 seats to Republicans' 15, with 22 of the total 34 seats up in states Bush won in 2000.
In the House, the last round of redistricting largely shored up incumbents, giving Democrats few opportunities to best Republicans. Moreover, a few GOP-held state legislatures, such as Texas, are attempting to redraw district lines again, which could wind up increasing their majorities.
If Bush wins reelection and the GOP increases its majorities in Congress, the party would have four more years to enact its agenda, explained Mr. Robinson of Iowa, and to see its policies play out. If Americans aren't happy with the end results, there could be a backlash, he admitted. But if they are, he said Republicans will "reap the rewards" in subsequent campaigns.
"Our time is just beginning," said Ms. Phillips of Mississippi.