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Bush's 2004 Campaign Quietly in High Gear

Plan is to harry possible opponents, target key states and distance the president from politics.

May 05, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — While President Bush floats above the fray, White House strategists are laying the groundwork for his reelection effort, targeting key states and working to undermine the Democrats hoping to run against him in 2004.

The hub of activity is the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill, stocked with key members of the Bush team and fashioned to serve as the president's reelection operation in all but name. The idea, say those familiar with the arrangement, is to distance Bush and the White House from overt politicking as long as possible, without ceding ground in a race expected to be hard-fought and probably close.

The war in Iraq and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks "changed Bush's presidency ... and made him a commander in chief," said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant and former top staffer at GOP headquarters. "That gives Bush a huge advantage over his Democratic opponents, and this White House will work to keep him in that seat as long as possible."

"By becoming 'candidate' Bush, you put yourself on the same level as 'candidate' Kerry," Reed added, referring to Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, one of the nine Democrats competing for the party's nomination. "Evolving from a candidate to president is a big step, and you never want to go backward."

Bush's top political aides declined to be interviewed for this article, and the White House has actively discouraged other Republican operatives from talking about the president's reelection plans; most of those willing to discuss Bush's strategy and the planning quietly underway would not do so for attribution.

"There is no campaign," said Jim Dyke, chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee, where all major decisions flow from the White House and the president's chief political aide, Karl Rove.

But others suggest that the Bush campaign never let up after the 2000 election, despite efforts to portray the White House as paying little attention to politics. "It's the campaign that never turns off," said a Western GOP operative, who participates in one of several weekly strategy calls that originate at party headquarters and tie in dozens of GOP operatives across the country. "They've been at it ever since they've been inaugurated."

Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist and leading Bush hand in that key state, said he had breakfast with Rove within 10 days of Bush's swearing-in and has regularly talked strategy with him since.

The reelection effort has picked up even more in recent weeks after Bush told aides to proceed with planning for 2004 -- provided they don't expect his active involvement soon.

But even before that signal came from the top, Rove -- a lover of history -- and others in the White House began plotting the 2004 strategy, starting with research into past reelection campaigns. Special care was given to study the failed effort of Bush's father, down to his day-to-day schedule in 1992 and the timing of campaign media statements, according to one Republican. But the working model for this Bush's reelection bid has been adapted from the last two presidents to win second terms: Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton.

Reagan, who was personally popular in the way Bush is today, stayed out of the political mix until well into his reelection year. Clinton, in turn, amassed a huge financial advantage over his opponent and used that to begin a springtime advertising campaign that pounded the GOP nominee, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, before Dole had the means to adequately respond.

Bush is expected to enjoy a similar financial edge and emulate Reagan and Clinton by standing aside while aides launch an aggressive assault on whomever the Democrats nominate. That candidate should emerge sometime around March; the White House hope is that he or she too will lack the financial resources to effectively respond until the Democratic National Convention in July -- by which time it may be too late.

A consultant who has worked closely alongside Rove described his operating style this way: "In your face. Offense, offense, offense. Attack, attack, attack.

"They want to do whatever they can to put banana peels under every single Democrat running" even before it is clear which of them Bush will face, the GOP strategist said. "Whoever [the Democrats] nominate, they want him weakened by the time he gets through the process."

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