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Bush Camp's 'Iron Triangle' Steels for a Changing Fight

Strategy: Campaign will emphasize issues to battle an Al Gore who didn't exist in voters' minds just weeks ago.


AUSTIN, Texas — They're known as the "Iron Triangle": George W. Bush's very tight, very loyal and, until recently, very successful trio of top advisors.

The best thing about the troika is a discipline so steely it could make an Olympic athlete flinch. And the worst? Quite possibly that same single-mindedness, a trait that has kept them hewing to a single strategy through a changing campaign: Run against President Clinton, and Al Gore will lose.

Even this week, as the Republican nominee for president has begun shifting from direct attacks on Gore to a greater focus on issues, character remains central. Issues, said one campaign insider, now will be used to highlight what the Republicans call the duplicity of Bush's Democratic rival.

When the race is going their way, the trio's certitude and discipline serve Bush well. But when the campaign changes for the worse--as it has in recent weeks--the line between discipline and inflexibility blurs.

In good times, no leaks come out of the Bush campaign. No internal disputes become public. Nothing distracts from their resolute strategy for putting the Texas governor in the White House. Communications director Karen Hughes stays on message: Bush is good, Gore is bad. Chief strategist Karl Rove stays on plan: Character, character, character. Campaign manager Joe Allbaugh stays on budget and on top of every detail.

In bad times, the second-guessing, particularly from Washington, begins: Does the Austin, Texas-based campaign crew have what it takes to win a national election, having never tried before? How could they have so badly bungled their debate strategy? Why don't they listen to experienced outsiders more? Why didn't they shift gears sooner, when Gore started coming on strong?

Unflappable, jovial even, Rove radiates confidence; he is buoyed by Bush's unwavering support. "Been through this drill, been through this drill," he said, fairly chortling, in a reference to the black days after Bush's landslide loss to Arizona Sen. John McCain in the New Hampshire primary. Rove knew the race would tighten, he insisted: "I'm prescient."

But after seeing Bush's double-digit advantage evaporate almost overnight, others in the party are far less sanguine. "The dynamic of the race has changed," said one GOP strategist who occasionally advises the Bush campaign and frets about the overconfidence in Austin.

"Clearly, the predicate for the Bush strategy was that Clinton fatigue--and presumably Gore fatigue--would precipitate the American electorate to want change for the sake of change," he said.

At this point, Bush is running against "a different Al Gore" from the one who existed in the minds of voters just a few weeks ago, one campaign strategist said. Voters "don't think [Gore] is a stiff anymore. . . . They think he knows what he's doing. They think he has a plan.

"The real question we have to answer is how we justify change," he said. "And that's a different question than we had to answer six weeks ago."

Still, Bush and his close cadre have stuck to their strategy, though even some campaign insiders are beginning to question the wisdom, and Republican strategists look at the campaign and fairly beg for changes: Attack Gore on social issues. Bring in new players. Get mean.

Those in Austin, one GOP veteran said, "don't know how to create an issue, an agenda. They think they're above it. Restoring honesty and dignity takes you [only] so far. It wears off."

The architect of the Bush strategy is Rove, a 49-year-old history buff and college dropout. He has known the candidate since the early 1970s and worked on Bush's losing 1978 race for Congress and both of his winning gubernatorial campaigns. He is so loyal, he sold a profitable consulting business to focus solely on Bush's White House run.

With a boyish face and a bad-boy swagger, Rove is the one who gives the candidate the bad news and the good: "Early exit polls say you're losing"; or, "You're up 10 points!" And then he parses the race for reporters. He is driven and focused. Those who don't like him call him ruthless; those who do like him use a more polite description: control freak.

Rove has toiled in Texas politics for the last 20 years, as the state went from solidly Democratic to largely Republican. "He was the guy at the forefront driving that train," said Chuck McDonald, who served as Texas Gov. Ann Richards' communications director when the Democrat lost her 1994 reelection bid to Bush.

If Rove has a weakness, critics say, it's being a bit too convinced of his own cleverness. Metaphorically speaking, he will construct a notion of reality, build a house to fit and then hunker down, even if the ground shifts, one fellow Republican strategist said. Now that the ground has shifted in the presidential campaign, many see that as a major problem with Bush's strategy.

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