Extreme makeover, congressional style
The changes have been gradual, but the effect is undeniable. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum is working to reinvent himself as he gears up for what will be a tough 2006 re-election battle. Santorum, for a long time the Senate's most strident antiabortion advocate, was notably not the face of the GOP in the Terri Schiavo debate. And GOP sources are peddling an analysis of his recent votes that shows him to be the "least conservative" GOP Senate leader. More evidence of his softer side: He has proposed a minimum-wage hike, promised to fight the White House on funding for Amtrak, and even announced last week that he was increasingly conflicted on the death penalty. Democrats call it a dash to the middle: "He's trying to moderate his persona," says Democratic operative Phil Singer . GOP head Ken Mehlman says that getting Santorum re-elected is the party's No. 1 goal in 2006. With Santorum trailing slightly in the polls, that apparently requires that he sound more like his moderate Pennsylvania colleague, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter .
Bush's trusted envoy to seniors
Vice President Cheney had wanted to keep a relatively low profile in President Bush 's second term. He told friends he was content being Bush's No. 1 adviser in private and had no desire to raise his visibility. But it hasn't quite worked out that way. Instead, Bush and senior White House strategists keep dragging Cheney away from his undisclosed locations to go on the road--big time--to promote Social Security restructuring. GOP focus groups show that Cheney's nonflamboyant, straightforward style tests well among elderly voters who need reassurance that Bush's plan for private retirement accounts won't jeopardize their existing benefits. Washington insiders say this is a sign that White House advisers finally realize how much trouble Bush's Social Security plan is in, because they need the veep to pull out all the stops. Cheney traveled last week to Nevada, California, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. "He is the upfront guy, laying the groundwork to maintain support with the party faithful," says a close associate of the Bush family who has worked with Cheney in the past.
Amid the Bush administration's tough talk toward North Korea, a new fear is emerging: Could Pyongyang test a nuclear weapon this year? Some insiders think so. "Knowing Kim Jong Il 's track record for brinksmanship, I'd bet on it," says Larry Wilkerson , who worked the North Korea issue as former Secretary of State Colin Powell 's chief of staff. "If we don't resume negotiations, I'd give it a 70-30 chance." The CIA is not predicting anything imminent. But then again, it missed India's nuke test in 1998. "The only thing that would preclude this," says Wilkerson, "is if they don't have a bomb."
For all the Democratic fretting that he'd be too high profile, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has steered clear of the spotlight since being elected Democratic National Committee chair in February. Dean has done just one interview with a national news outlet as DNC chair--a five-minute quickie with the Associated Press--and won't sit down with the national press for at least a few more weeks. Why the silent treatment? Because Dean is talking exclusively to local media in places where he's making appearances, as he did last week in Tennessee. "We're getting our message out," says a DNC source, "from the grass roots up."