Aides Say Bush Is Already Absorbed in 2004 Race

New York Times

January 11, 2004


CRAWFORD, Tex., Jan. 10 — The official White House line, repeated once again by President Bush at a fund-raiser at a lush Palm Beach golf resort only on Thursday, is that "there's plenty of time for politics." The message is that he is so focused on the business of running the nation that he has paid little attention to the details of his re-election campaign.

In reality, presidential advisers say, Mr. Bush is wholly absorbed by the race.

The president personally made the decision to hold the Republican National Convention in New York City, one adviser said. He talks daily to Karl Rove, his chief political aide, about the ups and downs of his Democratic competitors. He keeps a close eye on his fund-raising totals, which now amount to more than $130 million.

Other advisers say that Mr. Bush, who was deeply involved in his father's presidential campaigns, is far more immersed at this point than his re-election staff likes to admit, and often sets strategy hand in hand with Mr. Rove.

"It's not a matter of turning everything over to Karl," said one top adviser, who asked not to be named for fear of angering the White House. "Karl is brilliant, but in terms of political strategy, there's no question that the president is intimately engaged. When he comes into a state, he will know exactly what his numbers are, whether people think the country is moving in the right direction, what his approval rating is."

Advisers were also struck by how many campaign-related people Mr. Bush knew among the 5,000 who were invited by his political operation to White House Christmas parties in December. "It was not just the state chairmen but the chairmen of counties," the top adviser said.

More recently, Mr. Bush has been intensely kibitzing about the strengths and weaknesses of Howard Dean with advisers who are still anticipating a campaign against the former governor of Vermont, but who have covered their bets by continuing negative research on the entire field of Democratic contenders.

"There are more similarities between them than there are differences," said Ken Mehlman, Mr. Bush's campaign manager, who is planning a campaign focused more on the direction of the country and less on a personal matchup between the Democratic nominee and Mr. Bush, who continues to polarize large portions of the electorate. Although he faces no opposition in the primaries, his campaign is nonetheless dispatching workers to Iowa and New Hampshire in the next weeks to counter an extended political attack on Mr. Bush and his agenda.

Meanwhile, the Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters, in a characterless office park just across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va., is humming like a model of corporate America. In contrast to the Dean headquarters in Burlington, Vt., there are no boxes of stale pizza, crumbled Diet Pepsi cans or volunteers in blue jeans on grungy sofas.

Instead, it feels a lot like the West Wing: fresh flowers, security checks, a big photograph of Mr. Bush with day-old stubble at his Texas ranch, an army of well-dressed staff members. "Generally speaking, people conform to a certain sense of decorum," said Terry Holt, the campaign press secretary, who never wears jeans to the office. "In this campaign, you have a responsibility to represent the president of the United States, and even if it is a campaign, it's important to look that way."

Over all, the mood among the 160 staff members at Bush-Cheney headquarters is sunny, while the strategy is to cast the Democrats as angry and out of touch with what Mr. Bush calls the essential optimism of America.

"We're going to face a vicious assault," Mr. Mehlman said. But he did not sound dismayed, and Republicans close to the campaign say that Mr. Mehlman's real challenge is to keep his troops from overconfidence. The polls may be good now, they say, but Iraq and the economy could derail the campaign's meticulous plans.

"It's the Yogi Berra line: it's not over until it's over," said David Winston, a Republican pollster who talks to Bush campaign officials. "One of the most dangerous moments for any campaign is when everything seems to be going well. There's clearly a sense of confidence at the moment because they see these huge margins. But the fact that it's the second quarter and you've got a huge lead doesn't mean you can't still lose the game."

A recent CBS News poll shows Mr. Bush running 20 percentage points ahead of Dr. Dean among registered voters, but only 9 points ahead of a generic Democrat. Dr. Dean remains ahead among Democrats in recent surveys, but a Gallup poll last week showed Gen. Wesley K. Clark moving up to within 4 percentage points of Dr. Dean. Whatever the latest tally, Mr. Bush's advisers say that such numbers are almost meaningless without a Democratic nominee, and this far from the election.

Matthew Dowd, the campaign's chief strategist, told Mr. Rove and Mr. Mehlman in an internal memorandum in November: "As I have repeated time and again, this race will be decided within a four- or five-point margin, not the 18- to 20-point margins like 1984 or 1972." Mr. Dowd added in the memorandum that he expected the race to be neck and neck when the Democrats are likely to settle on a nominee this spring.

The person in charge of the campaign is Mr. Rove, who remains on the White House payroll as the president's senior adviser.

Mr. Bush has delegated the organization of the campaign to Mr. Rove, but he has the final say on campaign decisions and a senior adviser says he was closely involved in creating his immigration policy in large part because of its potential for attracting Hispanic voters in 2004.

"This was not just Karl," the adviser said.

The president also turns for political advice to Karen P. Hughes, his longtime communications aide, who left the White House in 2002 to return to Texas.

A critical strategist is Vice President Dick Cheney, a former member of Congress from Wyoming, who knows the political map of the United States almost district by district. Mr. Cheney's campaign activities will pick up next week with fund-raisers, speeches and state Republican Party events in six states.

Mr. Rove oversees a campaign staff that is by and large young, that for the most part owes jobs to him and that has no rival to challenge his authority. He is in constant contact by telephone with Mr. Mehlman, his top deputy, who worked at Mr. Rove's side as the White House political director before opening the Arlington headquarters last spring. Mr. Mehlman makes regular trips across the Potomac to meet with Mr. Rove in the White House.

At campaign headquarters, just as at the White House, days begin early. Aides are in at 6 a.m. or earlier to begin assembling packets of the day's relevant stories from the newspapers and television into White House-like news summaries for the campaign's senior staff.

By 7:30 a.m., there is what the staff calls a "rapid response" conference call between the campaign staff and Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, to review the important political events coming that day, like major speeches by the Democrats, polls and presidential events. The goal is to be ready with consistent talking points.

Between 8 and 8:30 a.m., the campaign has a senior staff meeting to go over the battle plan for the day. Those attending include Mr. Mehlman, Mr. Dowd and Mr. Holt, as well as Jack Oliver, the deputy finance chairman; Mark McKinnon, who is in charge of political advertising; and Nicolle Devenish, the communications director.

Much of the rest of the day is spent in conference calls to Bush campaign officials across the country. Terry Nelson, the campaign's national political director, makes a lot of those, as does Mr. Mehlman. Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, is in charge of the Southeast; Vin Weber, a former congressman from Minnesota, is in charge of the Plains states.

There are also 33 staff members in 14 newly opened offices in major states, plus 5,500 county and precinct leaders who have been trained in 52 sessions around the country. They have learned, Mr. Mehlman said, basic grass-roots political skills: how to register voters, hold Bush-Cheney barbecues, call in to talk radio shows and send letters to the editor extolling the virtues of their candidate.

The Bush-Cheney 2004 Web site provides a link for sending the letters by e-mail, including the addresses of regional newspapers, plus writing tips ("Be clear and concise") along with pre-written blocks of Mr. Bush's policy positions ("The president understands the necessity to manage forest and rangelands") that a supporter can simply cut and paste into the Web site's e-mail form.

Mr. Mehlman said that 37,000 e-mail messages had been sent to newspaper editors, but that he did not know how many had made their way into print.

Midweek, the campaign holds a Washington conference call to brief two dozen core allies on political developments and buzz, and to make sure they have talking points when reporters call.

Charles Black, a Washington lobbyist and a longtime Republican strategist, is in on those calls, as is Mary Matalin, a former top adviser to Mr. Cheney. Others who participate include Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was Ronald Reagan's last chief of staff, and Ed Goeas, a leading Republican pollster.

At this point, the campaign has settled on the timing and themes of an advertising push, which may be built around the sense of national hope that Ronald Reagan tapped in his 1984 "Morning Again in America" spots casting the country in a golden glow.

Mr. Bush will lay out what will become the major themes of his campaign in his State of the Union address. Two months from now, when the Democrats may well have a nominee, he will probably have reached his fund-raising goal of $170 million. His campaign will then enter a more active phase.

Until then, advisers say, Mr. Bush is on the phone, busy handicapping the race and debating the merits of the Democratic field. They will not say, however, what he thinks of Dr. Dean.