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Bush in high gear

By MATTHEW COOPER AND JOHN F. DICKERSON


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The President's team is launching elaborate air and ground operations. A guide to his re-election effort

It was a gathering of eagles, but they were eating like good ole boys. On Monday night last week, after George W. Bush had given his first real campaign speech of the season to Republican Governors, he invited five of them back to the White House for dinner and a chance to spend the night in the presidential mansion.

Over a batter-dipped feast in his private dining room that would have given Dick Cheney's cardiologist the bends fried shrimp, fried onion rings, corn on the cob, French fries, cole slaw and cheesecake Bush was jovial, confident.

He told the group George Pataki of New York, Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Jim Douglas of Vermont and his Floridian brother Jeb that the presidential race would be close but that he would win.

Bush's legendary self-confidence was on full display. "You guys have the best job in government." He smiled, leaning back. "Actually, you have the second best job in government."

Over the past two months, some Republicans have wondered whether in November Bush would manage to lose his government job. His once solid poll ratings have gone wobbly, and in a variety of surveys he even trails his likely challenger, Senator John Kerry.

Now the White House is gearing up to take on Kerry and repair the damage of the past eight weeks everything from missing weapons of mass destruction and confusing job-creation estimates to strange policy detours about Mars and steroid use.

If this were the Clinton White House, the plunging polls would have spurred hastily assembled late-night meetings, presidential phone calls to allies at all hours, a round of firings. Not so in Bushland. At the offices of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Arlington, Va., there's the same placid quality that Bush showed during his fried-food fest.

The headquarters have got all the pizazz of an insurance office. Top staff have private offices that circle a vast maze, there are standard-issue cubicles, the desks are neat, most of the men wear a tie (except on casual Fridays, when jeans are the norm).

Like Bush, staff members sweat only when they work out, which some seem to do to nearly the same manic degree as the President. The Clinton War Room has given way to the Bush Office Park. In this mien, the Bushies are eerily confident that things are going to turn around for them in the coming months. Here are what they see as the touchstones of their re-election:

WHEN THE GOING GETS ROUGH, BUY AIRTIME

This week the empire will strike back. The President's re-election team, which has raised more than $140 million, will air its first television ads of the presidential campaign a salvo designed to re-establish the President in the public mind as a decisive, principled leader, uniquely equipped to strengthen the economy and win the war on terrorism.

These spots will not go after Kerry because that would set the wrong tone, say Bush advisers. "We're going through a process: first, correct everything that's been said about the President, and then we're going to correct the impressions about the [Democratic] nominee," says pollster Matthew Dowd. The ads, made by consultant Mark McKinnon of Austin, Texas, promise to be edgy but warm.

In the corporate world of Bush, the onetime singer-songwriter stands out. Most of the staff members use PCs; he has a PowerBook. Most are lifelong Republicans; he is a former Democrat with an iPod playing Kenny Chesney and a candle in his office. McKinnon became a Bush believer during Bush's first term as Governor and did Bush's ads in 2000. He is determined to convince Americans that the man he signed on with six years ago should stay in office.

DANCE WITH THE ONE WHO BRUNG YOU

It's not just Bush's ad team, though, that has been busy. Bush himself has staked out turf designed to help his re-election, most notably with social conservatives. When he announced that he wanted to amend the Constitution for only the 28th time in the nation's history, to establish marriage as solely between a man and a woman, the White House portrayed the move as an act of principle.

But even Bush's supporters across the country saw the move in purely political terms, rejoicing that Bush had "locked up" that crucial portion of his supporters. He also cemented his conservative support in other, less visible ways: supporting legislation that establishes harm to a fetus as a crime and, as ABC News first reported, having the Justice Department demand that six Planned Parenthood clinics produce records of abortions they had performed to see if last year's ban on so-called partial-birth abortions was being violated. And it appears the White House would have no problem with letting the 10-year ban on assault weapons expire this September.

DEFINE YOUR ENEMY

How will the campaign take on Kerry? The multipronged strategy is to portray him as too liberal on issues like defense and tax cuts and too unsteady about important principles. That's why the Bush campaign rushed a Web ad comparing Kerry's vows to take on the special interests with his record as the Senate's leading recipient of special-interest money.

Bush takes a far greater amount of such lobbyist money, Federal Election Commission records show, but proving Kerry's hypocrisy was worth exposing Bush's cozy relationship with corporate special pleaders.

The ads that tar Kerry as a waffler can sit in the can for a few more weeks, say Bush officials, who hope the press will give Kerry the going over he was largely spared during his primary campaign.

In the meantime, the campaign has rows of binders cataloging Kerry's votes and speeches and, sources tell TIME, it has asked focus groups about the Massachusetts Senator. Not surprisingly, officials say, he comes across just as Republicans have tried to caricature him: aloof and ambivalent. "He is not a look-you-in-the-eye kind of guy," says one.

GET BACK INTO SHAPE

Was Karl Rove asleep at the switch? Republicans have a mystical faith in the President's political adviser, but that devotion has been tested as Bush's standing in the polls has dropped. New gambits like a mission to Mars and an amnesty program for illegal immigrants left supporters cold.

When the President talked about steroids in January's State of the Union speech, they wondered if a team once known for doing big and bold things hadn't become bogged down in narrowcasting. (As it turns out, the idea actually came from Bush, who had noticed, say aides, that some major league players "had their careers resurrected" in ways that pointed to the possibility of steroid use.)

The White House response to Democratic attacks also seemed groggy, which some officials say was caused by the sudden arrival, much sooner than they had expected, of a feisty general-election campaign. "It's a lot easier to respond from the mountaintop when things are going well.

But when you're in the trenches and slugging it out, you have to be faster, and the only time they've ever had to do that was in the South Carolina primary four years ago," says a Republican political strategist, referring to the hard fight against John McCain in 2000.

The Bush political team, though, believes it is getting the kinks out of the system. One example: campaign and Republican National Committee (R.N.C.) rapid-response makers had been labeling Kerry a "Massachusetts liberal," not knowing that Bush likes attacks to be more specific.

"He doesn't like it because it doesn't tell you anything," says a top Bush aide. "Tell people what that means. That's what he wants." Result: the campaign no longer uses the shorthand phrase Massachusetts liberal. Bush last week instead pointed to the particular when he told Republican Governors, "The candidates are an interesting group, with diverse opinions: for tax cuts and against them. For NAFTA and against NAFTA. For the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act. In favor of liberating Iraq and opposed to it. And that's just one Senator from Massachusetts."

INVEST FOR THE LONG TERM

What has given the Bush campaign the most confidence during these dark days is its ground organization. While Democrats were attacking, the Bush team says it was quietly laying track.

Much of the $41 million the campaign has spent so far out of the $140 million raised has been on this quiet infrastructure. Indeed, campaign manager Ken Mehlman, the Harvard-educated son of a CPA, has worked so diligently to build a field organization that some call him the "accountant" for his excessive attention to detail.

It has paid off. The Bush team has county chairs in all the 1,189 counties in 18 of the target states from 2000. It has held 127 regional training sessions. By June, it will have made 800,000 phone calls to Republicans.

Almost 200,000 volunteers have signed on. It boasts that it will be able to run the first "national precinct campaign," involving lieutenants in all the 10,020 precincts of every swing state, a level of blanketing usually reserved for smaller campaigns.

Historically, Republicans have been behind Democrats at get-out-the-vote efforts, the tedious but vital work of calling people, getting them to the polls, making sure there is eye contact.

But Rove, Mehlman and the G.O.P. have been trying to make a science of voter motivation since the 2000 election and have determined that reluctant voters are four times as likely to turn out if they are contacted personally. Bush officials found, for instance, that this kind of effort is the most effective with Latinos who have never had such attention from the G.O.P.

If you are a swing-state Republican, lean that way or happen to share an interest like NASCAR or the N.R.A., someone is probably going to knock on your door between now and Election Day. You may already know G.O.P. officials from the church potluck or Little League, but if you don't, they hope to lavish attention on you.

In the meantime, Bush is not going to let the election take the edge off his self-confidence. When he gave those Republican Governors a tour of the White House, he showed them an 1868 painting The Peacemakers, by George P.A. Healy that portrays Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War, meeting with his generals about how to occupy the South.

The President pointed to the grim visage of the Great Emancipator and said, "Look at the lines of strain on his face." As bad as things get, Bush doesn't let such marks show on his.



Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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