SOMETIMES, LATE AT NIGHT, when Bob Dole was plunging off podiums, labor was blacklisting Republican candidates, and his onetime loyal allies were talking about impaling him, Haley Barbour reached into the bottom of his office closet and pulled out a bottle of Maker's Mark whiskey. There, surrounded by the spoils of his 1994 triumph -- framed newspaper clippings and a congratulatory note from Ronald Reagan -- the Republican party's national chairman would tilt his head back, take a liberal swig, and tune out the unceasing criticism that he had held his ace too long.

The Mississippian with the musical accent and oversized hat of hair survived perhaps the biggest strategic gamble of the season. In the age of rapid-response politics, he lay low, keeping a perfect poker face while conserving the bulk of his money until the final weeks of the campaign. In the process, he risked not just the GOP Congress and presidential candidate, but his reputation as one of the most successful party chairmen ever. Now, with the election finally over and Republicans safely ensconced on the Hill, a relieved Barbour smiles and guzzles a lite beer.

"We were sitting over here behind our rampart," he says, gesturing toward his desk for emphasis and launching into an enthusiastic mixed metaphor. "We knew we only had about two volleys. . . . If they'd just a little more time to get over that fence, we'd had to fight 'em off with baseball bats."

He pauses, as if contemplating what might have happened then.

What did happen, unfortunately, was not exactly a triumph. After all, only 12 months earlier, 1996 still looked like the year of the Republican royal flush, the year the party would win both the executive and legislative branches and Barbour would be anointed the best bluffer inside the Beltway. Instead, the portly chairman got a slimmer congressional majority and a leaner, meaner Bill Clinton-which, in poker terms, more closely resembles a draw. "It wasn't exactly what we wanted," he says. "We were hoping for the trifecta."

But though Barbour's trump card wasn't enough to save Dole, it preserved a GOP Congress for the first time in 68 years. Indeed, for Barbour, the outcome on November 5 was more than vindication; it was salvation. Lionized after the 1994 election, Barbour was on the verge of being excommunicated by his own flock. "What should happen if he loses Congress and the White House?" said one GOP operative in early October, when polls showed Republicans forfeiting the House after months of unanswered Democratic attacks. "He should be carried down Pennsylvania Avenue and crucified."

Nearly everyone now agrees Barbour deserves more than his life; the party not only held the House, but picked up two seats in the Senate. Rep. Bill Paxon, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, calls Barbour godlike, while the political prognosticator Charles Cook extols his "gutsy, optimal impact" strategy. Even some of Barbour's sharpest critics are mollified, if not muted. "In the long run, Haley's wait-till-you-see-the- whites-of-their-eyes strategy paid off," says Ohio freshman Bob Ney, who just months earlier had grumbled to reporters, "Where's the RNC cavalry?"

But unlike after the last election, Republicans are limping back to Capitol Hill, their agenda co-opted by a politically hermaphroditic president and sullied by a briefly revived labor movement. Holding your money until the end "is an inherently defensive political strategy," complains Rep. David McIntosh, an Indiana Republican freshman who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations. "We got lucky that it worked out this time. You can't endorse a strategy that has you consistently losing ground. It'd be nuts if that strategy became the party line. If that's the case, then the Republicans can forget about being a majority party."

Barbour shrugs at such carping. "They can pee all over me," he says, "and it doesn't hurt anythin'."

In fact, most of the House Republicans who crumpled under labor's assault, like Michael Flanagan of Chicago, are in largely Democratic districts and would have lost under any circumstances. And, at least in 1996, the rationale behind Barbour's gamble was correct: While many voters settled on their presidential candidate early, a critical portion of the public chose their congressional candidates in the final days. Among those voters, exit polls show that 53 percent favored Republicans, while only 43 percent turned to Democrats. "Had we not been dominant in the last week or two," says GOP pollster David Hill, "we'd probably have lost."

Like any good poker player, Barbour played the hand he was dealt. Unfortunately, one of those cards was a deuce -- Bob Dole -- and another a wild card -- Newt Gingrich. "It's not exactly what you want to bet the house on," says one Dole strategist.

While Gingrich's toxic image polluted Republican campaigns from Connecticut to California, Dole's invisible candidacy remained a larger problem. Relations between the avuncular Mississippian and the stoic Kansan had steadily improved since Dole booted Barbour from legislative strategy sessions on the Hill in October 1995; Dole even confided in Barbour that he planned to resign from the Senate. Yet they remained from the outset wary allies, linked by fortuity rather than fortune.

In the past, the GOP president had always handpicked his RNC chairman. But when some Dole-ites wanted to dump Barbour for one of their own, Barbour made it clear he wasn't budging until the new year. The announcement preempted any insurgence, and ensured the RNC's financial independence in the final weeks of the election.

Nevertheless, Barbour feared losing control of the entire Republican campaign, from the governorships to the Congress, if Dole didn't reemerge as a viable candidate. After Scott Reed, manager of the Dole campaign, canceled weekly meetings with Barbour, Newt Gingrich, and other top advisers in June, Barbour quietly prepared for a Dole debacle. When the GOP convention failed to push the GOP nominee's polls above 40 percent, Barbour and his team plotted ads and state-party expenditures that would protect congressional Republicans in the face of a presidential blowout. Finally, after a desperate Reed begged Ross Perot to drop out of the race, the RNC launched a massive advertising attack warning voters not to give Bill Clinton unbridled power -- tacitly conceding Dole's impending defeat. "The untold secret of the campaign was how Barbour distanced himself from Dole, without making it explicit," says Robert Shrum, a Democratic consultant.

Just as pivotal, the normally parsimonious Barbour went on a last-minute borrowing binge, going $ 10 million into debt in order to reelect Republican incumbents. At the time, Barbour drawled he'd rather be $ 10 million in debt with a GOP Congress than $ 10 million in the black with a Democratic Congress. The late infusion raised the ante in the most expensive campaign in history and assured that Barbour did what he had always planned: show his ace in the final moments of the game.

As the balloons hung from the rafters at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, Republicans were not in the mood for a coronation. Dole was losing nearly as badly as George Bush, while congressional Republicans were being routed in the Northeast. On the 14th floor, in a smoke-filled suite, Barbour watched the returns grimly with his team. At 10:30, it was still unclear whether Republicans had even held the House. "If I had to do it all over again," Barbour insisted, "I'd do it the same way."

By 1:30 a.m., the electoral landscape had improved. Republicans had retained the House and gained in the Senate. Yet the room by then was oddly quiet; members still smoldered in ashtrays, beer bottles crowded table tops. Only Barbour and his onetime top aide, Don Fierce, remained.

"You did great," Fierce said.

"We couldn't have done any better," Barbour replied.

But unlike 1994, there would be no note from Ronald Reagan, no ritual call from Gerald Ford. Republicans -- Barbour deifiers and dissenters alike -- had learned an essentially conservative lesson: In politics, there are no saints or demons, only humans. "My place in history is the latest Republican chairman," Barbour says with a smile, "the fat guy with the funny accent."

by David Grann; David Grann is executive editor of The Hill

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