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Cole a Rare GOP Optimist

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole may be the last Republican optimist left in Washington.

"Our political positioning is very good," Cole insisted during an interview earlier this week. "It is not believable to me that we would have two 2006s in a row."

As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Cole is charged with helping the GOP try to retake control of the House even as the political environment remains decidedly unfriendly to Republicans. The slide in approval for President Bush and the widespread unpopularity of the war in Iraq -- the prime factors in the congressional Republicans' fall from power in 2006 -- could pose even graver danger for the GOP heading into the 2008 presidential campaign.

Cole, who came to Congress in 2002 after a successful career as a consultant and high-level operative within the party, said he has seen no signs of the tough political climate in the early days of his chairmanship.

Need evidence? Cole says he raised more than $4 million so far from Republican members to erase the debt incurred by the NRCC during the 2006 election campaign. That willingness to give, Cole argued, runs counter to the conventional wisdom within Washington that a demoralized Republican party will see a slew of retirements heading into 2008.

"I don't think we're losing many people," he said, pointing out that he had just returned from Cleveland where Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) helped organize a fundraiser for the NRCC. Regula, who will be 83 on election day 2008, is at the top of most lists of potential retiree lists.

Cole, too, said that recruiting candidates for '08 is made easier by the panoply of districts -- 61 in all -- that President Bush carried twice but are currently held by Democrats. (Republicans, by contrast, hold just seven seats nationwide that voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2000 and 2004.)

He noted that strong recruits have already emerged in New York's 20th district where wealthy former state party chairman Sandy Treadwell (R) plans to take on freshman Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) and in New Hampshire's 1st district where former Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) is seeking a rematch against Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D).

"A lot of these places had Republican infrastructures inside them," said Cole, adding that "under normal circumstances" the districts will return to their Republican roots.

Cole knows that with the presidential election already drawing wall-to-wall media coverage and the attention of activists around the country much of his fate (and that of House Republicans) will be tied to whomever GOPers put forward as their nominee.

The fact that the eventual nominee won't be named Bush or have any direct link to the unpopular current administration is not lost on Cole. "There is no heir," said Cole. "Whoever we nominate is going to be fundamentally different."

Given all his optimism about the election to come, would Cole predict Republicans will return to the majority in 2008? Sort of. "That's our goal," he said. "We play the game to win."

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 8, 2007; 3:50 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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