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Inside Politics

Raising the volume

It's only March, but it feels like September on the campaign trail.

By John F. Dickerson and Karen Tumulty

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President Bush was feeling back in the game as Air Force One headed to Cleveland last week.

Just that morning, aides had put the final polish on a new speech, in which Bush would make his first full run at what his team calls the economic-isolationist policies of John Kerry. After months of being pounded by the Democratic candidates, "the President was really fired up," says Representative Steven LaTourette of Ohio, who joined Bush for a private pizza lunch in his airborne office.

George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
White House

Once considered solidly Republican, Ohio is now up for grabs in the presidential election, thanks to its having lost more than 250,000 jobs in the past three years. But Bush had dived into his internal Ohio polls, and he reassured LaTourette that the water was fine. "My numbers are great," Bush told the Congressman. "I'm going to connect with those people. I do care about them and their situation."

To top it all off, Bush had a surprise in store. That afternoon he would finally nominate someone to fill the new job of manufacturing czar, which he had announced in another Ohio speech six months before.

What the President didn't know was that at that moment, Kerry's campaign was planning a surprise of its own. Tipped off by Democrats on Capitol Hill that the appointment was in the works, Kerry's staff had quickly done a LexisNexis search on the proposed nominee, Anthony Raimondo, and discovered that the Nebraska manufacturing executive laid off 75 U.S. workers in 2002 while building a $3 million factory in Beijing. That might make it awkward for him to champion keeping jobs at home.

Two hours before the Commerce Department was scheduled to announce Raimondo's nomination last week, the Kerry campaign did it for them. A day later, Raimondo had withdrawn his name from consideration, and Team Kerry was chortling about how difficult it had been for the White House to create even one new job. Sighed an Administration official: "It's clear these guys are pros and they know what they are doing."

It's not even spring yet, and the presidential campaigns are running at a pace you don't normally see until after Labor Day. "It's not just rapid response," said a top Bush campaign official. "It's rapid response six times a day."

At a point in the cycle when candidates would normally be quietly raising money and giving little-noticed policy speeches before nodding partisans, both campaigns are running negative television ads in 16 battleground states, and Bush has them up in two additional ones as well.

The debate over debates, another fall ritual, has already started, with Kerry calling for monthly ones and the Bush team saying he should figure out his own positions on the issues first.

Kerry, perhaps accidentally, gave voters an inside glimpse of the heat of the race last week when he made a comment to Chicago factory workers that was picked up by a microphone. "We're going to keep pounding," he said, and added that his Republican attackers were "the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen."

Not only are the professionals playing a vigorous game, but the voters are watching intently. In a survey by Republican pollster Bill McInturf and Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, 63% of Americans polled said they were following the race more closely now than in October of the past two presidential contests.

For an incumbent President, the kind of intense engagement in person and on the airwaves that has characterized recent weeks is nearly unheard of this early in the race. The power of the office and the media coverage its holder is guaranteed for just doing his job generally give him the luxury of staying above the fray.

Bush's advisers, however, see the next six weeks or so as a window of opportunity in which to inflict real damage on the Democratic contender before Americans get to know much about him. What's more, Bush has to answer those within his party who are increasingly question-ing the agility and management of his campaign.

Among them, two well-placed sources tell TIME, are Laura and Barbara Bush. "They are paying attention," says a Bush official. The President's mother, in particular, is worried that she has seen this movie before. Says the official: "She does not want to see her family go through a '92 thing again."

As the campaign lurches into fast- forward, here's what to watch for:

What happened to the best political team the G.O.P. had seen in years? The fiasco over the President's selection of Raimondo was just the latest in a string of miscues. White House officials insist that the nomination collapsed because a Senator in Raimondo's home state did not approve of him. Plus, they say, they were prepared to show how Raimondo's company actually created jobs in the U.S. by going to China.

A former Administration official counters, "You're not supposed to nominate people to such a sensitive post with a big asterisk that you have to explain. When you're explaining, you're losing."

For some Bush loyalists, the past several weeks of trouble are simply a matter of sluggish reaction to quickly changing news cycles.

For others, the shortcomings of the campaign revolve around chief political strategist Karl Rove and whether the President's top political mind is distracted, trying to do too many jobs in running both a campaign and the White House political operation. "Even in his superhuman mode, he can't be taking on John Kerry and vetting the manufacturing czar," says a former senior Administration official.

Many Bush allies are trying to push up the return of the President's longtime aide Karen Hughes from her semi-retirement in Austin, Texas, to restore the balance in Bush's world between Rove's political instincts, which lean toward tending the party's base, and her more "Mom-in-the-kitchen sense of the country," as an adviser described it.

"There is a necessary push-pull between the two of them that can't happen on the phone," says a Bush official. Another puts it more darkly: "The longer they wait for her to get back, the less it will matter."

On the other hand, Hughes has already been intimately involved in many of Bush's most controversial moves. She helped craft the poorly received State of the Union address, then closely advised on the much criticized campaign ads that used images of 9/11.

As the Bush team sorts out its internal mechanics, it will press the advantage of incumbency. Administration sources tell TIME that employees at the Department of Homeland Security have been asked to keep their eyes open for opportunities to pose the President in settings that might highlight the Administration's efforts to make the nation safer. The goal, they are being told, is to provide Bush with one homeland-security photo-op a month.

If the Bush team has been flat-footed, the Kerry campaign may have been on its toes too long. Handlers for presidential candidates see in Kerry's possibly unguarded comments into that open microphone in Chicago the mark of a tired candidate. Kerry will take a breather from the campaign this week, his first since a two-day break at Christmas.

For all its nimbleness in pre-empting the Raimondo nomination, the Kerry campaign has not always been as quick as it could be. When Bush attacked Kerry last week for proposing a cut of more than $1.5 billion in intelligence spending in 1995, the campaign responded that the Senator had voted for increases on other occasions but failed to add the more effective retort that the Republican Congress had approved an even greater reduction in 1995.

Kerry may soon get help in defending his candidacy. It is a measure of the acceleration of the race that his campaign is debating whether to move up his announcement of a running mate to as early as May, rather than wait until the July convention, as is customary. With Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Laura Bush maintaining robust campaign schedules, Kerry could use a sidekick. An extra hand would also help with fund raising.

The Kerry forces, which are badly outfinanced, are turning more attention to money. The campaign has increased the size of its fund-raising operation tenfold, adding 150 new workers and sending the candidate on a 20-city cash-raising tour.

Kerry hopes to tap into Howard Dean's high-tech machine which is why Kerry's former Democratic rival got such a warm welcome when he visited Kerry headquarters last week for a formal kiss-and-make-up session.

The Bush team has already spent $11 million on TV. After only a week of positive ads about the President, the team went negative with a spot calling the Massachusetts Senator "wrong on taxes wrong on defense." In the limited markets and times his depleted coffers would allow, Kerry fought back immediately with his own ad, challenging the Bush claim that he would raise taxes by at least $900 billion.

It was a risky move for the Bush team to come out so early against their opponent, but his re-election campaign believes that candidates like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton won their second terms by engaging early. Those who didn't like Bush's father lost.

Also, the Bush team felt that the risks it took in using images of 9/11 in the first round of ads, paid off. Bush campaign advisers say surveys of focus groups done after the ads aired registered approval among swing voters, and internal polls showed Bush's favorable rating increased 4 to 5 percentage points in states where the spots ran.

The ads also spurred $120,000 in online donations a modest amount but it included the biggest one-day haul yet for the Republicans over the Internet quickened the pace of volunteer sign-ups, and may have looked more timely in the wake of the terrorist attack in Madrid last week.

Both campaigns recognize that this spring is a crucial period in which each party stands to gain ground for the fall. They talk hopefully of retreating to a more civilized pace once the summer doldrums begin. But has there ever been a campaign that started out nasty and intense only to turn nice and mellow?

One thing is for sure: outside groups, to which so much of the campaign has been outsourced, will not go on hiatus. Those organizations, most of them aligned with the Democrats, are operating without the funding constraints that the new campaign-finance law places on candidates and parties, and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has yet to tell the groups to desist.

When the Republican National Committee last week sent 250 television stations a letter complaining that ads by were illegally financed by unlimited contributions and should not be broadcast, the liberal group promptly announced it was adding $1 million to its $1.9 million ad buy.

In addition, there will be plenty of heat coming from Capitol Hill, where virtually every bill will be turned into a test of Bush vs. Kerry. Republicans in Congress took collective umbrage over Kerry's Chicago remarks. "The Democrats haven't produced anything but hate," said House majority leader Tom DeLay, who is not exactly known for sweetening his words.

And Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada violated Senate custom last week by launching an attack on an absent colleague. Of Kerry's vote against authorizing the $87 billion that Bush had requested for Iraq, Ensign said, "Senator Kerry voted to undermine the troops in the field, and that is not only inexcusable, it is reprehensible."

Kerry's fellow Democratic Senators are organizing an informal defense operation from the Senate floor. It is being modeled after the one that former Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers put together for Clinton when he ran in 1992, with Senators who have authority on specific issues such as the budget and national security standing at the ready to go before the television cameras in defense of Kerry when he is attacked.

Meanwhile, the war rooms of the two campaigns are organizing to quickly seize any opportunity for attack. On the first floor of the brick-and-glass office building where Bush forces are housed in Arlington, Va., a bank of TiVos captures Kerry's every word.

A team arrives at 4:30 a.m. to sift through the papers and prepare responses before the sun rises. When Kerry unleashes even the mildest broadside, the young staff members go almost giddy, and a call issues: "Attack!" Comments from Kerry in the morning papers are incorporated into Bush's noon speeches.

Kerry has his own version of that operation in temporary quarters in a converted downtown Washington law office. An aide comes in at 9 each evening and watches the wires and news reports all night long. The rest of the team is expected by 6:30 the following morning. It was on one of their 8:30 a.m. conference calls with the Democratic National Committee last week that someone came up with Raimondo's name, and by 1:30 p.m. they had the information in the hands of reporters.

Those are the techniques with an assist from 21st century technology that both sides learned from Clinton's campaign, which famously operated on the principle that speed kills. Says Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan: "All of us grew up learning you have to get out ahead. You've got to move within seconds, not within a day." Which is quite a challenge, considering that there are nearly 20 million seconds between now and Election Day.

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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