NEW YORK -- Republicans worried that bad news in the economy and Iraq might take a toll on President Bush's solid poll numbers should get to work wooing new voters to help ensure his re-election in a tough battle with the Democrats, Bush's campaign manager told party activists Saturday.
"Our numbers look good today," Ken Mehlman told Republican National Committee members at the end of a four-day meeting. Still, he said, there's no room for complacency about 2004.
"These numbers will come down," Mehlman said. "We must prepare for an election every bit as close as the 2000 election," he said.
Mehlman's speech closed out a meeting punctuated by worries that Bush's political stature has been hurt by the ailing economy, a mounting death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq and questions about the administration's use of shaky intelligence to justify last March's invasion of Iraq.
Mehlman urged activists to reach former RNC chairman Marc Racicot's goal of registering 3 million new voters.
Terry Nelson, political director for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said grass-roots efforts will make a difference in key states where the vote was close in 2000. He mentioned in particular Iowa and New Mexico, which went to Vice President Al Gore in 2000, and New Hampshire, which went to Bush.
Nelson urged activists to reach out to suburban voters, the elderly and the young, and especially Hispanics, which he said is a growing Republican force.
Mehlman promised more jobs for America and, in keeping with the meeting's theme, lambasted Democrats seeking to replace Bush in the White House.
"Some criticize this war on terror as unilateral or pre-emptive. But didn't Sept. 11 teach us that we cannot wait while threats gather? That we must connect the dots, even if other nations refuse to see the pattern? That pre-empting terrorists before they acquire weapons of mass destruction, before they come to our shores, before they can harm America, is the goal?" Mehlman said.
Most of his address was devoted to his argument that 2004 is destined to be a close election.
The Bush campaign repeatedly makes this point, both to energize GOP activists and to minimize political fallout if his job approval rating should decline.
"This will not be easy," Mehlman said. "The last three presidential elections were close for a reason: The country is very competitive politically."
About a dozen people opposed to the presence of the party, which is holding its presidential convention in New York next year, paced outside the Waldorf-Astoria hotel after the meeting, passing out pamphlets that read "No RNC in NYC."