LIVONIA, Mich. - Clever sound bites didn't earn Ken Mehlman his job as head of the Republican National Committee. He ground his way to the top less glamorously - by mastering the nuts and bolts of campaign mechanics and staying rock-solid loyal to President Bush.
Still, Mehlman had a snappy retort ready after Democratic Chairman Howard Dean recently characterized the Republicans as "pretty much a white, Christian party." Mehlman responded by telling the Fox News Channel: "A lot of the folks who attended my bar mitzvah would be surprised to learn that."
After five months in the chairman's post, it's become increasingly clear that Mehlman is the anti-Dean - to the delight of Republicans and the discomfort of more than a few Democrats.
Mehlman, a 38-year-old Pikesville native, is as unknown as Dean is famous. He has no difficulty making his way through a busy airport terminal without turning a single head.
More significantly, he is intensely disciplined. Mehlman has yet to commit a serious gaffe, in sharp contrast to Dean's penchant for the ill-chosen remark.
Like other members of the Bush team, Mehlman hews relentlessly, if not robotically, to the party line. An old acquaintance who knew Mehlman from his Harvard Law School days in the early '90s was surprised by how closely the RNC chairman stuck to his talking points, even in a private conversation.
Before audiences large and small, he rarely strays from the written text of his speeches, which repeat the administration's message and seldom make news. He cautiously avoids uncontrolled situations, such as news conferences (he hasn't held any in his current job).
Yet he sailed through his first Sunday morning interview, an hourlong session this month with Tim Russert of Meet the Press, renowned for his ability to trip up the most seasoned politician.
John Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political scientist who once worked at the RNC, said Mehlman "just doesn't generate negative publicity, and from the standpoint of the White House, that's a pretty important virtue."
He added that Mehlman has managed to do "a bang-up job" at "one of the toughest jobs in politics" - chairing the party that is in power at the White House. With Bush and his top strategist, Karl Rove, calling the shots, Mehlman hasn't got as much power as Dean or as much latitude to act on his own. But he can count on having to defend the administration in bad political times.
Former Republican Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf said Mehlman has less independence than he did during President Ronald Reagan's second term. Under Rove, who is Mehlman's longtime mentor, there is "tighter integration" of the party apparatus and the White House than ever, he said.
That close integration is one reason Bush chose Mehlman for the party job after his successful re-election campaign last fall, which Mehlman managed on a day-to-day basis. Mehlman's RNC term runs through the end of next year, though he is feeling pressure from Republicans who want him to stay through the 2008 presidential election.
A recent Dean dictum that drew bipartisan criticism - that "a lot of Republicans have never made an honest living in their lives" - wouldn't seem to apply to his Republican counterpart.
Mehlman has been working overtime - more than 80 hours in an average week, by his estimate - at an annual salary of $208,100. He has attended more than 112 events in 19 states and Puerto Rico, according to his office. "Even his downtime is scheduled," wrote aide Ann Marie Hauser in an e-mail declining an offer from a reporter to share a casual beverage with Mehlman after his speech the other night in the Detroit area.
Gain in contributions
Under Mehlman, the national party has widened its financial edge over the Democrats, raising more than twice as much. The RNC reported that it collected $52 million in individual contributions, a record in a non-election year, through the end of last month.
Unlike Dean, who has been taken to the woodshed by elected Democrats uncomfortable with him as their party leader, Mehlman is a regular participant in weekly gatherings of Republicans in the Senate and House. He stays in constant contact with Rove and others at the White House, meeting and dealing with Bush only "when I need to," he said.
It is Mehlman's focus on grass-roots organization, an extension of his efforts in Bush's re-election campaign, that will likely be the hallmark of his tenure at party headquarters, Republicans say.
Second-term presidents rarely bother with party-building, but Bush has been trying. Mehlman's assignment is not only to keep the nation's most powerful political machine humming, but to strengthen and expand it.
The Republicans are employing many of the voter-contact tools honed in the '04 re-election campaign, including the latest computer technology, to promote Bush's legislative agenda and, perhaps as soon as this week, mobilize support behind his choice of a new Supreme Court justice.
One of Mehlman's top goals is to register 4 million new voters by 2008, which would top the 3.4 million Republicans say they added in the last election. He is also reaching out to traditional Democratic constituencies - blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews and younger voters.
"The party of Lincoln ... will not be whole again until more African-Americans come back in," he told a racially mixed party audience of about 125 in this mostly white Detroit suburb last week.
As he has in Maryland and elsewhere, Mehlman argued that blacks would benefit from Bush initiatives such as private Social Security accounts and federal aid to faith-based institutions. The Democrats, he adds, "convinced they'll have your votes forever," are taking blacks for granted.
Mehlman's outreach efforts have gotten the attention of Democrats such as Donna Brazile, who chairs her party's voting-rights institute and worries that Democrats aren't doing enough to counter what Mehlman has done.
"He's gone places I never saw Republican chairmen go. I think he has a deep commitment," she said. Unlike past Republican leaders, "he came of age during the civil rights movement. He's from Pikesville. His grandfather was an NAACP member. By now, I would have thought that Ken had run out of fuel and ideas to promote, but he's still going."
Mehlman, the first Jewish chairman of the Republican Party in modern times, said he believes "the values you're raised with have an impact on your political philosophy. ... I think that there's a belief I personally have in social justice that comes from my upbringing."
He is also enough of a hard political realist to recognize that making inroads with black voters won't be easy or quick, even though, as Brazile points out, "Ken is not trying to garner 90 percent of the black vote like Howard Dean is trying to keep 90 percent." An increase in Bush's share of the black vote in Ohio to 16 percent last year, as compared with 11 percent nationwide, is among the factors often given for his victory in that pivotal state.
Previous Republican chairmen have undertaken similar campaigns in recent decades, including Lee Atwater, who moved to the RNC after running the successful presidential drive of the first President George Bush in 1988.
"The problem with all these efforts is that after a while, the party organization got frustrated and moved on to something else," Pitney said. "It's an effort that's going to take years. And by definition, if they're still at it in a few years, that'll be a sign of seriousness."
Education: Pikesville High School; Franklin and Marshall College, 1988; Harvard Law School, 1991
Career: Worked on Capitol Hill, 1994- 1999; Bush's campaign manager 2004; elected RNC chairman Jan. 19, 2005